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'It's not just shopping': Ottawa's Freewheeling Craft taking local market online

“A lot of people do a virtual market, but it’s just a website,” Amanda Cockburn says. “I want people to kind of experience more than that.”

Barely a week or two into the COVID lockdown, many small businesses were making plans for how to weather a storm that, at the time, everyone thought might only last until the end of May. 

“The layers of this are incomprehensible for most people to see,” said Amanda Cockburn, the founder mind behind Freewheeling Craft, at that time. “I do in-real-life experiences, so it’s definitely daunting."

Most people in the local 'maker' economy (crafters, small-batch food producers, designers, etc.) will be familiar, even if only tangentially, with Cockburn and Freewheeling Craft, which was founded in 2015.

Cockburn has carved out a place for herself in the local economy as a curator of sorts, organizing craft markets to give local producers a place to sell their wares, and connecting the people who want to buy local with the local businesses they might’ve missed. (A lot of her focus is on woman-led businesses, too — Cockburn organized the craft market at City Hall for International Women’s Day, for instance, and has organized networking conferences and events for women entrepreneurs.

Her business has always been about empowering other small businesses, and in a lot of cases putting them face-to-face with customers in a way they might not have been, otherwise. 

COVID put Cockburn on the back foot, like everyone else, but it seemed clear even from the start that she could have a role to play as supporting the local economy felt like an increasingly urgent responsibility. It was that local economy that stepped up in the biggest way, Cockburn says. “I think it was cool that when you saw Amazon couldn’t deliver on time, but you could get something local delivered tomorrow — it totally flipped the script,” she says. 

That Freewheeling Craft’s path to being back in business runs through the virtual world was inevitable, and Cockburn now finds herself in the final stages of planning a virtual fall market, to be held between September 17 and 20.

If in March she was anticipating a few weeks, now Cockburn is smartly banking on being a virtual operation well into next year. 

“This one is a test,” she says. “I think it will go well. Getting this one right before the critical holiday season is important.” 

The Virtual Craft Marketplace will showcase not only local craft makers, but music and artists as well. Key to recreating the market experience in the digital world is creating an environment conducive to “connecting with the stories behind the brands, workshops, live music, [and] food and drinks,” Cockburn says. 

“A lot of people do a virtual market, but it’s just a website,” Cockburn says. “I want people to kind of experience more than that.” The market will feature things like cocktail workshops, where participants can buy the supplies required and follow along live at home. Cockburn says that some participants have got their whole bubble involved, and plan to participate as a social group. The market will also have music and art for people to take in — all in the name of trying to create something better than a plain old webpage.

“I’m trying to offer that immersive, local culture experience,” she says. “It’s not just shopping.” 

Cockburn says that so far they expect to have about 60 to 80 businesses on board, when the Virtual Craft Marketplace rolls out in a couple weeks. It remains a wholly local event.

"We’re going to do local pickup days the week after,” Cockburn explains — a way to get people to still feel like they’re shopping local, even though they might only participate from their living room couch. 

This, for Cockburn, is an important facet of her virtual turn: recreating the feeling of connecting with someone, something.

“There really wasn’t that feeling that I was part of something with people across the country,” she says of some of the early iterations of Zoom conferences. “It was a weird feeling. Even though it’s an event that everyone’s connecting with, I was sitting alone in a room.” 

In the end, it is the resilience of the local economy that allows Cockburn to carry on in spite of the pandemic. She’s seen local businesses adapt, and work out ways to serve their customers. That spirit will have to continue. 

“I think businesses just have to be ready for anything,” she says. “I think we can all have our little impact on the bigger picture.” 


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