116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
As many businesses shuttered last March at the beginning of the pandemic, Cherie Edilson’s “blew up.”
“In a good way,” clarified Edilson, the CEO and co-founder of Member Marketplace in Marion.
Member Marketplace, which creates online marketplaces for small businesses, has seen accelerated growth during COVID-19 as many brick-and-mortar stores pivot to e-commerce.
“We were ready, and we were prepared,” Edilson said, for an “all-hands-on-deck” March.
“We were in the phase of growing anyway, and everything had kind of been set, so then when everyone had to turn off their physical stores, we could help them dial up their online presence, so it really was perfect timing.”
Before the pandemic, the Marion small business had one full-time employee — herself — and two part-time employees. Now, the company has six full-time employees.
It also went from 11 online marketplaces before the pandemic to 25, Edilson said.
Rather than charging a commission on sales by small businesses on their sites, Member Marketplace’s business model relies on local partnerships to fund each marketplace.
For example, the Marion Chamber of Commerce signed a contract with Member Marketplace to set up a Shop Where I Live site for Marion small businesses.
The Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance previously had a contract with Member Marketplace for the same thing in Cedar Rapids, but the agreement no longer is in place. Edilson is keeping the site open, though, with hopes of finding another partner.
As Member Marketplace kept adding Shop Where I Live sites for communities across the country, Iowa Economic Development Authority approached Edilson about a custom website — something new for a company already seeing rampant demand. The result was Shop Iowa.
“We hadn’t done any platforms outside of Shop Where I Live,” Edilson said. “That was kind of our turnkey solution.”
Developing a completely new site such as Shop Iowa normally would take Member Marketplace six to eight weeks, Edilson said. But the site took about three weeks of development.
“It was a really quick turnaround,” Edilson said.
The Shop Iowa site now has about 450 businesses from 91 of Iowa’s 99 counties, as of IEDA’s April 16 board meeting. The state agency’s goal is to have businesses from all 99 counties on the site.
“Looking back at COVID, I think it is one of the best things we did and implemented,” Iowa Economic Development Authority Executive Director Debi Durham said in March.
Basket Bowtique in Cedar Rapids is among the brick-and-mortar stores to use Shop Iowa.
"Call me old fashioned, but we just haven't sold online on a website," owner Linda McConnell said.
McDonnell said it hasn't been enough to entirely make up for decreased downtown foot traffic and corporate demand during the pandemic, but it "certainly has helped."
"I've been pleased with the traffic that I've had," McConnell said.
In one case, someone seeing McConnell's products on Shop Iowa led to a phone order of 55 gift baskets.
"They saw it on shopiowa.com, but it wasn't exactly what they wanted and they wanted to make a couple adjustments to the gift box," said McDonnell, who happily agreed to the request.
McDonnell said she plans to put more products onto Shop Iowa soon, citing the increased exposure and "fairly easy" selling process.
Iowa Economic Development Authority extended its contract with Member Marketplace for Shop Iowa for another two years, at $173,000 per year, during its April board meeting. America’s Small Business Development Center is covering $150,000 of the $173,000 cost per year.
Almost Famous Popcorn in Cedar Rapids is on the site, but owner Bill Rieckhoff said the vast majority of online sales come from his shop’s own website, which saw a 787 percent jump in sales from 2019 to 2020.
“If somebody’s going to put in Almost Famous Popcorn (on Google), we’re going to come up No. 1 on the search,” Rieckhoff said.
He hopes his product being on the site gives more exposure to smaller vendors who might not have as recognizable of a brand.
Durham wants businesses to use Shop Iowa as a step toward developing their own website.
“We hope that all of them will begin to develop their own online presence, but at least having this to kind of help them ease into that we thought was a really good thing for us to spend resources on,” Durham said.
That way, it can serve almost like a small-business accelerator program, Durham said.
“We want to see this always evolving with new product lines as people graduate off (Shop Iowa) and do their own thing,” Durham said.
In the meantime, other states have taken notice. Nevada and Wyoming have worked with the Iowa company to build similar platforms for their states, with a North Dakota store in the works.
“Once you see it in existence, you can imagine it for your own state,” Edilson said.
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