Vanessa James knew she was taking a risk launching her brand at the beginning of the year. When her website went live in May, she was fully aware she would have to work even harder at promotion in a pandemic-struck marketplace.
James found opportunities to sell her Innocent Designs With a Purpose line of inspirational apparel -- t-shirts feature bold mottos like “I am black history” and “God Created” -- on virtual marketplaces like Mercy Corps' online Northwest Made Holiday Market and via the business directory of Shop Small PDX. She had a table at the monthly market at Easton Broad in the Rose Quarter. But like many small producers, James knew sales could be higher if her creations were more prominently featured in brick-and-mortar settings.
James took advantage of the student loan payment freeze in place to redirect funds to establishing her business, and took to Instagram to search for showcasing opportunities. There, she found out about Window Shop 2020: See, Scan & Support Local, a campaign to put locally created products in otherwise empty or under-utilized commercial windows. Interested shoppers can then scan a QR code on the window to locate the products for sale online.
“Window Shop 2020 has been amazing,” James told The Skanner.
“On my website, I can track where people are coming in from, and right under my Instagram account, they are the next-highest as far as traffic into my website. So It’s been pretty amazing to get people just coming in and viewing my items, especially with (the COVID pandemic).”
For Meghan Sinnott, director of small business collective Portland Made, converting foot traffic into sales for the city’s entrepreneurs was a novel way to keep holiday markets alive while responding to the current public health crisis.
“Last year we had a really kicking marketplace, we did a great live event, hundreds of people showed up, there was a piano player and hot cider,” Sinnott told The Skanner. “That wasn’t going to work this year. So many people wanted me to host a festival in the street or an outdoor market, but it didn’t seem safe and who’s going to show up in the 30-degree weather? And making makers sit out in the cold just didn’t seem like the answer.”
Sinnott knew she was hardly the only person taking daily walks to get out of the house.
“I found that I was really getting in tune with the main streets and the corners and the intersections,” she said.
“I just started really taking inventory and feeling more personally connected to the storefronts in my neighborhood, seeing the ebbs and flows, the for-lease signs.”
Portland Made partnered with Makers Union PDX, which formed this year to support local artisans, crafts people, and small-batch producers during the pandemic and ensuing shutdowns. Together, they ironed out the details on “activating windows” and bringing life back to retail districts around the city.
First, the organizations reached out to members of both Makers Union and Portland Made to invite them to participate, then did direct outreach only to Black-, Indigenous-, and people of color-owned businesses. Makers were asked to contribute items for display that they needed support selling during the holiday season.
With a grant from AlbertaArtWorks, organizers worked with designers from Klein Design Studios and Shana Design Co., who offered their services pro bono to create the look of each window. CarpentryPDX built out the displays at no charge, and an in-kind donation from Miller Paint allowed for colorful backdrops, including one completed by muralist Latoya Lovely.
Now, 67 brands are physically on display, and Black-made beauty products, jewelry, home decor, small-batch snacks, sauces, and even dog apparel can be viewed in three different windows: the retail space of the new Prometheus Apartments (NW 22nd St. & NW Quimby Ave.), the large window of the commissary kitchen at Crema Coffee + Bakery (SE 28th Ave. & SE Ankeny St.), and the former site of Helser’s on Alberta (NE 16th Ave. & NE Alberta St.), which is owned by “Queen of Alberta Street” Roslyn Hill.
“(Hill) pointed out this is a great benefit to landlords because windows are less likely to get graffitied when you put stuff in them,” Sinnott said.
Half the featured brands are owned by people of color, and 15% of Window Shop 2020 sales will be given to the Black Resilience Fund based in Portland. None of the vendors are charged to participate, and Portland Made will not be deducting any pass-through fees or percentage of sales made through its website.
“We’re a community; I don’t need to make sales off of members,” Sinnott said.
“(Sales) benefit me because those makers survive.”
Valuable Exposure Elsy Dinvil, founder of Creole Me Up foods, has seen an increase in online sales since the window displays were unveiled at the beginning of the month, despite only marketing through her Instagram.
Window Shop 2020 approached her to promote her line of jarred Pickleez, a nine-ingredient take on the Haitian-Creole "pikliz" which she offers alongside her books Cooking With My Mother and Spice Up: Simple Dishes with a Haitian Twist.
A native of Haiti, Dinvil crafted a brand that reflects the drastic dietary changes she was forced to make after years of suffering from severe digestive issues. The brand is her answer to her own question, post-colon surgery: “I’m a Haitian. How am I going to eat?”
Her window pick, Sassy in Purple Pickleez, is one option: purple cabbage in apple cider vinegar with garlic, fresh turmeric, fresh ginger, shallots, and habanero pepper.
“A little bit of exposure, it’s a good thing,” Dinvil told The Skanner.
“I’m not just a food producer, I’m trying to build a community around Haitian food. My end goal is to promote my country in a better light than many people see it.”
Sinnott would agree.
“(Window Shop) is an awareness-building campaign, in addition to boosting sales,” she said. “It’s for the first time getting 33 brands that have never been together in a window, supporting each other, getting to learn about each other.”
While Window Shop 2020 runs through the rest of the month, organizers plan to create new window displays on a monthly basis. That means the program will need more windows and more makers -- established companies and new producers are both welcome.
“We’ll find a way to make it sustainable, but mostly we’ve got phenomenal momentum right now,” Sinnott said. “It could be not only monthly, I think it could expand to different cities. I think Seattle could benefit from this. I think smaller communities could benefit from this. It’s an evergreen thing and wonderfully transferable.”