A group of students led out of the University of Alberta School of Business has been charged with helping the Capital Region’s small businesses get ahead of the pandemic-induced warp-speed retail overhaul that is pushing customers online in droves.
The students are at the heart of the new Digital Economy Program (DEP), a free initiative that sees a team of U of A students help build the online presence of small businesses in the Edmonton area, whether that’s adding e-commerce, creating a social media plan or even designing a website.
“Because of how we have shifted our habits as consumers over the last few years, if you don’t have a digital platform, you may as well not exist,” said Heather Thomson, executive director of the U of A School of Retailing, who is leading the program.
“It’s kind of a life-or-death situation for small businesses.”
Thomson said surveys have shown that upwards of 75 per cent of U.S. consumers tried a new shopping behaviour in response to economic and pandemic-related changes. She also cited statistics showing that e-commerce sites recorded a 22 per cent growth in 2021.
“That’s insane. It should have been closer to seven per cent.”
Thanks to $960,000 from the Government of Alberta, Thomson, in partnership with Businesslink and Digital Mainstreet, the platform provider, began recruiting municipalities for the program.
“I thought maybe I’d get three or four municipalities — I got 13.”
All told, Thomson and her U of A digital service squad hope to help 3,400 businesses in Edmonton, Sherwood Park, Leduc, County of Leduc, Wetaskiwin, County of Wetaskiwin, Calmar, Nisku, Devon, Spruce Grove, Stony Plain, Parkland County, St. Albert, Morinville, Sturgeon County, Strathcona County and Fort Saskatchewan over the next 15 months.
The program builds on a similar undertaking, Make Edmonton Digital, which was rolled out in October of 2020. For that project, Thomson received $225,000 in funding from Western Economic Diversification and an Edmonton Economic Recovery Grant, and put 11 U of A business students to work helping 700 small businesses create an online presence in just under a year.
For this new undertaking, Thomson has doubled her student workforce, with designs on having upwards of 40 students by next summer.
Registered businesses in the province of Alberta with fewer than 49 employees are eligible for the program, Thomson noted.
“It doesn’t matter what business you have — a dentist’s office, a retail shop or plumbing supply company — you need a digital platform,” she said.
“We can’t do everything, but it’s enough to get them going.”