Sales from megaretailers like Walmart, Amazon, and Target have soared amid the pandemic as consumers choose the safety and convenience of a one-stop shopping experience. But that success comes at a cost to small businesses without a robust e-commerce presence of their own.
That’s why Jonathan Sandals created Sook, a free Google Chrome plugin that aggregates product listings from stores that sell via Shopify to help you “buy from the boutique next door.”
Are you looking to buy local candles three miles from your house? Sook gives you a dozen options from different online stores in your area. Want to find the most popular local products in your community? The tool serves up a page of beloved products for you to browse. Sook also alerts you with small business suggestions when browsing on big retail sites. Search for a jacket on Amazon, for example, and Sook will alert you of similar products sold by small, local alternatives.
A content marketing strategist by day and entrepreneur by night, Sandals moved to Seattle in 2019, where he saw the positive impact that small businesses had on the local culture. Since launching Sook in August 2020, the browser tool is now in 20 cities across the U.S., with recent additions in Canada and the U.K.
Below, Hello Alice caught up with Sandals to talk about how he developed the tool, the importance of supporting small business, and how he juggles work and building Sook.
Why was it important for you to create a tool that helped people find local businesses?
It really helped coming to Seattle and understanding how indispensable small businesses were to the culture and character that I fell in love with, combined with my understanding of e-commerce. Online shopping wasn’t developed to make it easier to shop at the stores that we love and appreciate. Online shopping was developed to make it easy to buy a mass-produced jacket in a warehouse on the other side of the world. It wasn’t easy to buy a great jacket that’s five miles away.
What was the process like of creating the browser extension?
The first thing that became apparent was that small businesses have no time, bandwidth, or resources to deal with another kind of software, so the idea was to start with the most common software in the search platform for e-commerce, which would be Shopify, and figure out how to research and scan the best small businesses that use that platform in particular cities across the States.
That’s where a bit of the work comes in: to categorize them so that all the stores’ jackets are showing up in the same category, all the stores’ dresses are showing up in the same category, all the home goods are showing in the same category. Every store and products from the stores are tagged with a geocoordinate so that people are able to see what’s close to them.
And did you bring on developers to build it?
I had interviewed a couple of backend developers, and they didn’t work out. Then I lucked into a great developer in New York who helped me out a lot in terms of showing me tools that would help me on my end, as well as teaching me things that I didn’t know about building it.
What’s the reaction been so far from users and small businesses alike?
It’s been incredible. We got approval from Google in late August, so the first couple of weeks were trying to figure out how to get the message out because we’re not big Facebook advertisers. We were struggling to come up with some traction and put the word out about it. Then my community paper here in Ballard picked up my Facebook post in my community Facebook group. They did a blog post about it right away, and that blog post made it to the front page of Reddit. Since that happened, things have started snowballing. We’ve been on the home page of Reddit four or five times in different subreddits. Every single time we’ve been covered by regional media like in Seattle, Portland, or Toronto, the articles have rocketed to the top on those sites.
On the small business front, we’ve had hundreds of stores ask to be a part of Sook, which is great because we’re free. And it’s astonishing to hear their feedback because they’re like, ‘Okay, what’s the process? How much is it going to cost? How much work do we have to put into this? Could we set up phone calls?’ And I’m just like, ‘Provide us your web address, your business address, and we’ll do the rest.’
One of the great things is getting messages from people who live in cities we haven’t launched yet, like St. Louis, Durham, and Raleigh. People have been calling saying, ‘Please, can you come to my town because we need to help our small businesses?’ We can handle that front for them; we can get those cities live for them.
You’ve recently launched in cities across Canada, as well as in London. Do you have any plans to launch in more locations?
Originally, my idea was to launch in Seattle, then A/B test a few to figure out what works. But then I realized we’re a browser extension; we can’t delegate it to just one city. You can download it from everywhere. So we launched with 20 cities in the U.S., and because I’m originally from Canada, I wanted to make sure we got some cities up and running. Right after the America launch, the first expansion was to Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, and Winnipeg. Then on New Year’s Day, we got London because people in the U.K. and Europe have been hounding me to get us over there.
You work as a content marketing strategist during the day. How are you balancing work and running Sook?
I work at Coding Dojo, which is amazing because we’re providing a smarter path to help people get better careers, and I get to do that during the day. That’s extremely fulfilling. Then, around 5 o’clock, I can move into answering emails for Sook, adding stores, doing some marketing efforts, taking phone calls. But I think we’re trying to get some investors from the e-commerce community because we want to do a bunch of upgrades and expansions. We have a lot of potential there that we haven’t taken yet just because of resource issues. But we want to improve our product suggestion tool, we want to expand to more cities, we want to improve our product categorizations. That all just takes time.
What’s your ultimate vision for Sook?
Short term is monetization because we have all these users, and we know where they are and we know that they want to shop local whenever they can. We can do local emails starting soon. In Seattle, we have about 1,000 active users, so we’ll be able to send some Valentine’s picks and send an email about that. After that, we’re going to try launching a mobile app to see if we can get the same experience. On top of that, we want to get on Firefox as well because that community is really important to us.
And since it’s the new year, what are your plans for 2021?
London launched earlier than we thought we would. We’re way ahead of our user acquisitions. Just in the last week, there have been a hundred stores across the States that have emailed me to get added, so making sure that small businesses, regardless of where they are, know that they have somebody looking out for them. And it’s just a matter of time until they’re going to be on the same playing field as these corporate retailers who’ve been able to monopolize online consumption. That’s what we’re trying to construct here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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