Brett Rounsaville’s parents ran an upholstery shop in Fresno for 30 years. That’s where he saw firsthand how hard local businesses have to struggle to stay afloat. When the coronavirus pandemic hit Oakland, where Rounsaville now lives, he said he saw his parents’ faces in those of his favorite local shopkeepers who were forced to close, or drastically limit their hours. When he visited Lakeshore Avenue’s Adventure Toys the first week of lockdown to buy a birthday present for his three-year-old daughter and found it shuttered, he was forced to order her gifts from Amazon.
“I felt like a jerk,” he said in an interview. It was this guilt about seeing local retail dollars flowing into Seattle rather than to Oakland stores that led Rounsaville to create Keep Oakland Alive, which launched September 25.
Rounsaville describes Keep Oakland Alive (KOA) as “a central online store for some of your favorite shops in Oakland.” The concept is this: locals go to the site and shop for items curated by a variety of local retailers, depositing everything into a single cart. Customers can expect their order to be delivered in one package, straight to their home by KOA within one to four days—for free.
Jewelry, home goods, clothing, spices, art supplies, and toys are just some of the local goods available through Keep Oakland Alive.
Brett, whose previous career included a stint as a set designer for Disney, had to do a lot of research to create the Keep Oakland Alive app. He spoke with numerous shop owners about their needs and quickly realized he couldn’t fund a new venture all on his own, so he put the word out online to find like-minded entrepreneurs. In May, he connected with April Underwood, who has worked at Twitter and Slack, among other tech companies.
After a number of weekly meetings where they talked about ways to help local retail thrive, they decided to create an umbrella organization—Local Laboratory—with Underwood serving as CEO and Brett as Head of Merchant Operations. They were aware of only one model—Cinch Market in Brooklyn—doing similar work. In Oakland, Local Motiv has been creating a directory of local brick-and-mortar shops since before the pandemic.
Retailers pay nothing to join Keep Oakland Alive, but they are asked to share a percentage of each sale to help cover the cost of delivery (free during the pandemic), administration, and credit card processing fees.
KOA currently has four employees: April, Brett, and two engineers who design and manage the business’s back-end function.
They launched their pilot with more than 20,000 items from 17 shops in Oakland and are looking to announce the participation of 30 additional shops in the next couple of weeks. Some of the current stores include Oaklandish, FLAX art & design, Rockridge Furniture and Design, Philippa Roberts Jewelry, and The Lemonade Bar. Some of the most popular items include Oaklandish gear, spices from Oaktown Spice Shop, and puzzles and art supplies from Flax.
Iguehi James is a Nigerian-American who was born and raised in Oakland. Her Love Iguehi online shop sells handmade and custom clothing and face masks, using strikingly colorful African Ankara prints. Pre-COVID, she was reliant on in-person events, markets, and pop-ups to find new customers. By April of this year, everything on her calendar was canceled. Her pandemic pivot included beefing up her store’s online shopping experience—and creating “statement piece” facemasks.
“They’re well-made, true to my brand, and they just took off,” she said. Working with KOA has been a very positive experience so far, and her main concern is that, when the service expands, the same high level of service can be maintained. “Excellent customer service is really important to my brand,” she said.
Jill Holloway and Vanessa Pope run Mudlab, a zero-waste café and grocery on Grand Avenue. They offer a thoughtfully curated line of essentials, including beeswax food wraps and bamboo toothbrushes and utensil kits. They opened just after the pandemic began and it hasn’t been an easy time.
“It seems that each time that we are faced with a huge problem or expense—water heater failing, windows smashed out—we are then met with some fortunate or positive event: neighbors donating to our GoFundMe, and emergency grants,” said Pope, whose goal is to come out of the pandemic as a strong business.
Pope said she was excited to hear about Keep Oakland Alive and she appreciates the fact that it requires very little work for the business. “Customers seem to like it,” she said.
Erica Perez and her husband John Beaver run the popular Oaktown Spice Shop, known for their high-quality whole spices and custom blends. Erica said they looked into ways to provide free delivery to local customers, but that it always came up at an unsustainable cost (they currently provide shipping and store pickup options).
“We live in a very supportive community, but everyone feels the pull of more convenient options such as Amazon, so anything that makes shopping local easier is great,” Perez said.
Her customers have generally been excited, except for those in Berkeley or the South Bay, for whom the “only Oakland” policy is a disappointment. She says that it has been “smooth and easy” on their end, with only an occasional inventory issue (KOA-purchased items that turn out to be sold out, for example).
Is KOA a phenomenon of the pandemic, or will the local shopping and delivery apps still exist once stores are allowed to completely re-open?
“It will keep going—even stronger,” predicted Rounsaville. “Amazon is a problem, pandemic or not, and there’s no vaccine for Amazon.”
Ami Patel, the owner of Adventure Toys, which inspired Keep Oakland Alive, thinks that customers will continue using the app after the pandemic.
“If 2020 has taught us anything,” she said, “it’s that everything is unpredictable—including shopping habits.”