This French town has created its own Amazon with a difference

When coronavirus hit, a bunch of local businesses in Angers banded together to take on the e-commerce giant and win back shoppers for good

One afternoon last week in Angers, a small city in Western France, Jonathan Berdugo was drinking coffee while keeping an eye across the street on his designer menswear boutique, VIP In Fine. Berdugo says sales are only at around 60 per cent of what they were before France imposed a nationwide quarantine on March 17, with a gradual reopening since mid-May. But he and more than 200 local Angers business owners are hoping to keep their stores afloat online by building their own Amazon.

Angers Shopping, which launched in the middle of the country’s confinement, provided an outlet for vendors to sell goods while their physical locations were closed. The online marketplace – created by the Paris-based tech startup Wishibam – has the larger goal of helping sometimes decades-old businesses find new customers and promote their products online. In the country that has held Amazon and other digital behemoths to account for their workplace practices, Angers Shopping hopes to be a more ethical, environmentally friendly and human-focused alternative.

Berdugo says large online retailers and department stores have cut into his business, where he sells everything from formal suits to décontracte floral button-downs and sneakers. The name reflects how he likes to treat his customers: like VIPs, helping them choose garments and working with a tailor for a perfect fit. But without Angers Shopping, he wouldn’t have been able to run a virtual store, as it provides help with marketing, payments and picking up merchandise.

“Being a storekeeper today means not having a lot of time because storekeepers don’t have a lot of staff,” he says. “To be able to get on the internet, you have to have staff. You can’t open a site and then say, “Well, there you go, it will work by itself.”

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Dominique Gazeau, president of the business owner association Les Vitrines d’Angers, says that being stuck at home provided an opportunity to train shop owners. “We were able to discuss with them, to pique their interest and raise their awareness,” says Gazeau. He adds that small businesses are still not “sufficiently aware” of digital commerce.

Angers Shopping fits within Wishibam’s larger goal of helping small and large French businesses develop online presences. Online retail has been slower to develop in France, making up only ten per cent of sales according to the Centre for Retail Research. (This is compared to almost 20 per cent in the UK.) In its first week, the website had more than 570,000 visits. Some stores generated up to 30 per cent of their operating sales through the platform. The city’s small size allows for deliveries within 72 hours (though often faster), completed by electric bicycles, mail and click and collect for in-store pickup.

“The idea is really to reconcile the store experience with the convenience of online and to bring together the best of both worlds,” says Wishibam founder and CEO Charlotte Journo-Baur. “At the same time, we really try to create a link with the customers, as well as with the merchants.”

For many Angers Shopping businesses, sales impact more than just the shop owner. Delphine Collet started Madame Chocolat in 2017 to highlight the sweet delicacies of the Anjou region, like la Quernon d’Ardoise, a nougatine coated with a signature blue chocolate, reflecting the area’s slate mines. “I put together my desire to promote local crafts and to highlight small artisans and quality products with my sweet tooth,” says Collet.

Her small storefront highlights products from around 20 local creators. She says some of the experience is lost online, particularly getting to sample goods. But, she argues, quarantine was an opportunity for people to reconnect with cooking and quality ingredients. “There were a couple of weeks when really nothing happened,” she explains. “Then, after a fortnight, three weeks, people realised that they were at home, that they wanted to treat themselves to good products.”

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Collet says that many are now buying sweets to catch up for missed holidays and other celebrations marking France’s reopening. Laurence Collin, owner of the women’s prêt-à-porter outlet River Woods, has had similar experiences facilitated through the ease of online shopping, like a woman who had to find an outfit immediately for an uncanceled post-lockdown wedding.

Located in the centre of downtown Angers, River Woods showcases garments from Belgium designers. Collin went into business in 2004, first transforming a garage into a consignment shop. “The Belgians are very strong in styling and decorating, like all Nordics, so this is quite a special concept,” she says. “The style is a little timeless and always with a nice detail, comfort and well-cut.”

In her shop, where rustic wood and brick walls highlight colourful floral summer dresses, sparkly sweaters and statement jackets, she says she decided to join Angers Shopping because “it’s important to have that kind of hybrid business, because there are people who only buy on the internet and people who only buy in stores”.

Even though sales decreased during the pandemic, she says that knowing her business wasn’t completely stopped helped her maintain morale. And for the first time, she was able to capture people too busy to shop in person. Like many members of Wishibam, she’s focused on continuing personalised service online, even helping three generations of the same family find clothes.

“If things go wrong, they can come back into the shop,” says Collin. “There’s the human side that’s always there. Whereas when you buy on the internet, there’s no one there.”

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This human element is crucial to Angers Shopping combatting giants like Amazon. While Amazon has been slower to take hold in France, it still amounts for 22 per cent of online spending, with about 45 per cent of the population buying from Amazon at least once a year, according to Kantar Insights France. Although, the country’s strong labour laws and union organising have prevented a stronger “Amazon effect” from taking hold.

France’s lockdown began with strikes and demonstration by Amazon warehouse workers complaining about overcrowding and a lack of sanitising gel. The company halted its sales in France after a civil court outside of Paris ruled it had failed to provide adequate safety measures in distribution centres. Amazon then lost an appeal in Versailles, banning the delivery of nonessential items.

By contrast, Angers Shopping is positioning itself as more collaborative. While Amazon charges subscription fees for sellers as well as per-item and referral fees for each sale, Angers Shopping so far charges no commission. Dominique Gazeau from Les Vitrines de Angers adds that while “Amazon can travel around the world to deliver a flash drive,” Angers Shopping is “hyper local” with a much smaller ecological footprint.

Wishibam, which over the past five years has invested €8 million in technological projects, has launched a similar e-commerce site in the larger city of Nice and plans to expand its model in France and with partners in other countries. Journo-Baur says sales on Angers Shopping have gone down a bit, with around 120 to 150 purchases per day amounting to about €1,000 in profit. This is without any marketing, she adds, and the company is now focusing on its communications strategy.

For Berdugo, the owner of VIP In Fine, Angers Shopping is just the latest initiative in his 30 years in retail clothing sales. While business on the site has been slow, he acknowledges its potential. During a time when he can only allow a few masked customers into the shop at once and has to steam each garment after it’s been tried on, shopping virtually might be the most viable solution.

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