Lyndhurst gift shop The Green Gecko puts storytelling at centre of digital strategy
People who visit The Green Gecko boutique in the quaint village of Lyndhurst often leave with stories. Sometimes those stories come in the form of unique decor Terri Dawson and her husband Peter have found during their travels throughout South East Asia or handmade goods they’ve sourced from local artisans. Sometimes it’s just an exchange about the stunning Victorian home they’ve converted into a small gift shop.
Storytelling, says Dawson, is at the heart of the business. “I don't make people feel like there's a dollar sign on there being here – whether they buy something small or they just chat for today and then come back another time… I think it's important for people to just feel valued.”
The Green Gecko is a special shop in a special kind of place. Dawson knows that well, it’s what spurred her and her husband to take a leap of faith 17 years ago and buy the shop and turn it into their own. Dawson had no formal business training, the pair were just looking for a lifestyle change and fell in love with Lyndhurst. The shop gave them a chance to take their love of travel and all the makers they’d meet along the way and bring that back to share with other people. “It was much more of a from the heart decision than a paperwork business decision,” she says. “Right or wrong, it worked out.”
The small gift shop has evolved since the early days from a catch-all for their treasures to a hub of artisanal gifts, home decor, jewellery, treats, toys and games. The inventory is always changing but Dawson says they're unwavering in their commitment to ethical buying practices, contributing to their community and creating an outlet for artists, artisans and makers.
“I’m not going to compete on price with box stores and bigger places… that’s not realistic,” she says. “My game is in showing value for what you're buying – part of that is the authenticity and the telling of the stories.”
More recently, Dawson had been thinking about how to translate that unique experience digitally. Since the early days, The Green Gecko has had a blog to help tell the stories behind the travel treasures. But prior to the pandemic, Dawson had been thinking about expanding on that. The pandemic just made it impossible not to.
“For a long time, I had a goal of doing a better job digitally with the store and also selling online,” says Dawson. “I just never had the time to commit to it (or) the cash flow to pay someone.” Not to mention the colossal challenge of uploading a revolving door of unique gifts and products.
Around the same time COVID-19 was forcing her to close the shop, Dawson started working with Digital Main Street, a program that combines grants and one-to-one support from the Province of Ontario alongside partners like Google, Shopify and Mastercard among others to help main street businesses strengthen their online capabilities and plan for the digital future.
“I was committed to making that change in my business because the writing was on the wall that you have to get online if you want to survive this,” says Dawson. “But Digital Main Street helped me to do it more efficiently (and) get to the end professional product easier, faster and better because there were people who knew what they were doing.”
The Digital Transformation Grant allowed her to invest in the next stage of digitization for the business and create a website that would let her build on the stories surrounding the products while also selling online. “I told them at the beginning ‘I’m not a typical business and I’m not a typical business owner’ and the story behind the Green Gecko and authenticity and what I do is very important to me,” she says. “I feel like they listened to what I said and helped me to figure out how to get started on massaging this thing I created in person into an online presence.”
Dawson says she’s still in the midst of the transformation and trying to find a balance between storytelling and getting the right products and product descriptions online for customers. She’s using her social media and newsletter to engage her customers while keeping up with inventory, something, she suspects, will always be a challenge given that the majority of the things she sells are unique. “I’m not at the tipping point of maintaining my online store, I’m still building.”
But Dawson is patient. She knows eventually in-store shopping will feel normal again. There will be a time when the pandemic nerves are shrugged off and visitors meander in the store if only to stand and talk about her finds.
“It’s as a small store and 90% of the time, I'm the one in the store,” says Dawson. It’s why she’s so attached to the storytelling part of the business. “(Stories) are part of the whole persona of the business.”
Digital Main Street was created by the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA) with direct support from the City of Toronto. DMS is also supported by a group of strategic business partners, including Google, Mastercard, Shopify, Meta, Intuit QuickBooks, Square, Lightspeed, Ebay and Canada Post.
Continued investment from the Province of Ontario, through the Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade (MEDJCT) has allowed the ongoing expansion the Digital Main Street Platform in order to support more businesses going digital across Ontario.