port of harlem magazine
 
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Companies That are Surviving Online or Struggling to Get There
 
June 18 – July 1, 2020
 
Money

kioko

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As JC Penny closes 154 stores, the US retailing brick and mortar power house is planning to invest more into its online business. Several smaller businesses including Zawadi’s in Washington, DC; Nisey’s Boutique in Mount Rainer; Maryland; the Port Of Harlem Gambian Education Partnership;  and Kioko Mwitiki Art Gallery in Nairobi, Kenya; are following, and even leading into the future.

Irene Whelan, owner of Zawadi’s, says in addition to her U Street, NW store, she has been selling online for about 10 years, but had not really groomed her online presence until the coronavirus pandemic hit. “It saved us. Without the online presence, we would have not had any income.”

With the store being closed and the densely populated U Street area traffic being close to zero, Whelan says that building a successful online retail outlet and creating foot traffic on the internet may look simple, but it is not. “The amount of labor it takes with getting our inventory online,” has been the most challenging she explained.   

She added that it takes a lot of time and effort to work with a photographer to capture her product’s images and for her to write product descriptions that include cultural context. The 28-year-old outlet sells contemporary and traditional African art with a focus on home accessories.

In suburban Washington, Nisey Baylor, owner of Nisey’s Boutique, says she has had no foot traffic around her Mount Rainer store since the stay at home order was put into place in response to the pandemic. To stay afloat, she started a fundraiser on Facebook and has received more than $10,000 in donations. “This fundraiser is our foot traffic,” she exclaimed.

She has also posted goods on her Facebook page and is offering curbside pickup as Maryland opens back up. However, Baylor says she is experiencing difficulty with creating an e-commerce presence. "I am definitely having trouble finding a professional website builder, without losing lots of money I don’t have," she said.

Among the plethora of items at Nisey’s Boutique is Gambia River soap, an all natural, honey based soap made by one of the groups the Port Of Harlem Gambian Education Partnership (POHGEP) assists. Soap sales assist the women’s branch of the Baobab Youth Development Association.
 
POHGEP launched its own limited e-commerce site this month, The Port Of Harlem Gambian Education Partnership Marketplace. The site offers products from Gambian small businesses. The current products include “A Dictionary of Gambian Fula” and “A Handbook on the Pula (Fula) Language” by Fulladu Publishing.
Whelan says that building a successful online retail outlet and creating foot traffic on the internet may look simple, but it is not. “The amount of labor it takes with getting our inventory online,” has been the most challenging she explained.
Across the continent from The Gambia in Kenya, Kioko Mwitiki, art director at Mwitiki Art Gallery, says “The whole pandemic has just opened up more interest.” Ironically, as shipping became problematic, interests in their offerings increased from international buyers. “We are being forced to redoing our whole website to include more virtual tours,” he added with the hope of launching the new site as we release this issue.

He calls the pictured work African Golfing Lady ($5,000). "I used the colors gold (royalty) and black (earth) because they were powerful symbols in African cultures. Historically, early Egyptian artisans used at lot of gold and black and I want to remind people that gold has always been at the heart of Africa." he says.

"There is a wealth of amazing products online," says consumer Amandla Awethu. "We are missing out if we limit ourselves to local distribution markets," added the Atlanta shopper and Port Of Harlem reader.

Meanwhile, JC Penny will begin liquidating stores in the coming weeks as it looks to eliminate its store portfolio of under performing locations to focus its attention on e-commerce sales. An additional 242 store closures is expected and a total of 600 stores will reportedly remain under the JC Penney umbrella.
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