“We’ve had 350,000 visits in a couple of weeks”: How the 27-year-old founder of Not Amazon became a local shopping crusader

“We’ve had 350,000 visits in a couple of weeks”: How the 27-year-old founder of Not Amazon became a local shopping crusader

Ali Haberstroh started her directory of local shops as a convenient cheat sheet for time-strapped family and friends. Two weeks later, Not Amazon exploded and now features more than 4,000 businesses. Here, Haberstroh explains why local businesses are the backbone of Toronto, her You’ve Got Mail-style beef with big-box retailers, and why her haters need to get a grip.

You are a social media and content manager. How did the idea for Not Amazon come about?
Nick, a friend of mine who owns Expo Vintage on Dundas, put up an Instagram post pointing to other vintage stores offering curbside pickup. I started thinking about how I could apply that more broadly to all kinds of places that were losing business. I spent a very snowy Sunday afternoon in November making a Google spreadsheet of about 50 businesses—a mix of general, booze and clothing and accessories stores with with a focus on BIPOC-owned businesses—which I then posted to my Instagram. Normally my posts get about 70 likes; this one got 10,000 in a couple of days. A benevolent stranger and web developer, Baker Baha, reached out and said he could help me turn the spreadsheet into a website to reach a lot more people.

Was “Not Amazon” the obvious first choice for the site’s name?
I bought the URL for $2.99, and the name was a spur-of-the-moment decision. In some ways, Amazon is a representative for all mega corporations that are the enemy of local business. Amazon in particular has been in the headlines a lot this year with stories about the poor treatment of its workers, on whose backs Jeff Bezos is getting rich. It’s just so horrific. I’ve spent my life in Toronto, and a lot of our culture and multiculturalism comes through our local businesses that are seriously under threat right now.

What has traffic been like so far?
We launched the site on November 26 and the response has been amazing. In just a couple of weeks, we’ve had 350,000 hits, featured more than 4,000 businesses in Toronto and also expanded to Halifax, Vancouver and Calgary. Right now, I have about 2,000 new submissions to get through.

What are your criteria?
I mostly make sure the businesses are real, the links work and the photos are viewable, but it’s extremely tedious and time-consuming. I block the submission page from my browser during the workday, and around 5 p.m., I’ll crack open a beer or pour out a glass of wine and start working on the site.

Have you heard from any of the business owners?
A lot of people! It’s definitely the best part. I heard from a woman named Christine, who owns the Wholesome Canine on Dundas West. She emailed over the weekend to say her website visits were way up and that she’d donated $100 to our charity of the week, the Native Women’s Resource Centre. That made me cry. The owner of the Green Jar on St. Clair West says they saw a 550 per cent increase in online sales. My mom’s friend, who’s an artist in Vancouver, said she sold three paintings in one week. Being able to do something to help these struggling businesses is the best feeling. It almost makes up for the mean comments.

What kind of mean comments? What do people object to?
No good deed goes unpunished, I guess. The comments have slowed down a bit since I took my personal contact info off the site, but I’m still getting about half a dozen negative messages a day. A lot of the criticism says the site doesn’t function as well as Amazon. That makes sense—I’m not a multi-million-dollar corporation.

Hellooooo. The site is called Not Amazon.
I know, right! My roommate sits with me while we go through the messages. We thought about creating a gallery of mean commenters, but I decided that wasn’t exactly in the right spirit. Instead, I added a tab on the website contact page for “condescending, unsolicited advice.” Most people want to shop local. They understand why it’s important, but then they’re pressed for time, and the Amazons of the world are just so convenient. I’ve heard from friends who say that they did all of their holiday shopping through Not Amazon. It makes such a difference and it’s a win-win situation.

Will you keep the site going after the holidays?
We’re definitely planning for the future. We want to start a newsletter and highlight featured businesses. Baker is also working on a fully functional map for the site.

Can you imagine turning this into a job for yourself?
I’ve thought about monetizing the site and I’ve gotten a lot of offers from start-up tech guys. I’m not sure that the spirit of the site would stay the same if we’re focused on profitability. I have taken a few meetings, but when I sleep on it, it doesn’t feel right.

You’d blink and become the next Jeff Bezos.
Well exactly. For me this site is about helping people. That’s the reward.