Startup Tucson Unveils Digital Marketplace for Local Businesses

click to enlarge Startup Tucson Unveils Digital Marketplace for Local Businesses
An example of the Tucson Shops Tucson marketplace.

Startup Tucson, Vantage West and the University of Arizona's Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing are teaming up to create "Tucson Shops Tucson," an online marketplace to host and support local businesses in a new digital economy. While the online shop is aiding those local businesses negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Startup Tucson hopes it will continue to support and teach local business owners even after the virus subsides.

Tucson Shops Tucson opened its doors today, and features more than 80 products and experiences from local businesses. These include art prints, soap, clothing and dishware, as well as tickets to classes and visits to destinations like Hotel McCoy.

“A lot of businesses are working through these massive pivots in their business structures right now,” said Dre Thompson, executive vice president of Startup Tucson. “And we also heard from the customer side that a lot of people want to shop local, but aren’t sure of the best places to go—so what’s important to us is that it’s user-friendly and also highlights local businesses that have been suffering from a loss in revenue.”

While serving as a digital marketplace for local goods is the obvious role of Tucson Shops Tucson, an equally large component is training and coaching local companies to build an online presence. All participating vendors can receive free digital business courses from Startup Tucson and can be assigned a UA mentor from the Center for Retailing.

“The idea is to always offer small businesses an opportunity to learn and grow with their products,” Thompson said. “We’ve wanted to do this for a long time, because we get so many startups that are playing with the idea of getting an online shop. We’ve always thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have our own online marketplace where people can test things out and we can coach them?’ We see this as a sandbox of innovation going forward.”

Tucson Shops Tucson formed after Startup Tucson hosted a series of online "Live from Startup Studios" events throughout March. Small businesses began reaching out after they’d seen online lists of local restaurants offering takeout, and wanted a similar directory for craft businesses and entrepreneurs. In less than two weeks, Startup Tucson planned out the marketplace, with Vantage West and the Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing offering support.

“It’s been really cool to see all these big holders hopping in and getting excited about something that was just an idea in our head two weeks ago,” Thompson said.

Tucson Shops Tucson is similar to the recent Virtual Fourth Ave. Street Fair listing local businesses, but Thompson says there are key differences: Tucson Shops Tucson is listing specific items, not business links, and is offering online coaching.

It’s free for local businesses to apply to be part of Tucson Shops Tucson, with a few stipulations: Startup Tucson does not handle transactions, so businesses must have a shopping cart feature on their website, and the items sold should be less than $100. Businesses can apply online at Startup Tucson’s website.

New research by Arizona State University and the University of Iowa on "digital participation and its impact on economic opportunity" found that supporting businesses online is a key strategy for economic opportunity, thriving communities and increasing a county's prosperity index.

“I think the more of these kinds of lists, the better,” Thompson said. “These digital shops are super important to local economies, and a lot of businesses that were going to get around to an online shop at some point are being forced to now. It was just never as important as it suddenly is. But there are many benefits to having a robust online presence… That would be the silver lining to all this, if we really did see a sustained change in shopping patterns.”

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