Bridging the digital divide: New e-commerce resource aims to help minority-owned businesses build necessary online presence

Lilia Rios’ business plan for the year was all set.

“We decided 2020 would be our year to enter the digital world,” she said.

Rios, the owner of Passaic-based La Providencia, felt there was an opportunity to sell her authentic Mexican products, such as kitchenware, party supplies and restaurant decorations, to a wider audience.

“We wanted to update our website and create a webstore to do retail,” she said. “We already do wholesale, but we wanted to go straight to the customer.”

She was in the process of setting up a digital retail presence through Amazon, Shopify and Alibaba when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. But, instead of seeing the shutdown crush her business — as it has for so many — it afforded her the time to perfect her online presence. She said she is now ready to begin online sales when more businesses are deemed essential.

Having been in business for 15 years, Rios was confident in her ability to become a player in e-commerce. Other small, minority-owned businesses may need help. Starting Monday, they may be able to get it.

Tayde Aburto, the CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of E-Commerce, is launching the U.S. Business Association of E-Commerce — an online marketplace that connects small and medium-sized enterprises with domestic and global buyers — on Monday.

Aburto said the USBAEC will provide businesses with an abundance of applications and tools to help them succeed online. The membership price ranges from $20-$50 a month, depending on business size. It is intended to serve all underserved communities, including women-, veteran- and LGBT-owned businesses, as well as those owned by various ethnic and racial groups.

“The business portal is hosted in a technology platform that was custom coded by us,” Aburto told ROI-NJ. “I’m confident that we will be able to deliver value to the market with the work that we are doing to support small businesses to have a more active participation in the digital economy.”

The timing could not be better, said Luis De La Hoz, chairman of the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey. De La Hoz said COVID-19 has forced small businesses to make the shift online, or risk losing to competitors as the economy reopens.

“The digital divide for our members and for most minority-owned businesses is probably the most challenging problem we are facing, especially approaching the reopening economy,” he said. “We’ve come to realize that, right now, the digital divide is an even bigger problem than access to capital.”

This divide comes from a lack of resources, whether it’s attempting to do everything on a phone rather than a computer, or not knowing where to start when making a website.

There are financial implications as well. De La Hoz said businesses without PayPal or other payment methods embedded online will struggle.

“People will likely pass if they need to tell someone their credit card over the phone,” he said.

At the same time, De La Hoz and Aburto both said businesses need to be aware of the importance of using a platform that prevents business owners from being victims of fraud.

How does a small business handle a fraudulent credit card charge? What are the best shipping methods? How will customers find your online products?

Aburto said the USBAEC’s B2B marketplace platform will help small businesses answer these questions.

“The numbers don’t lie,” he said. “It is clear consumer behavior is changing, and it’s important that small businesses acknowledge this new reality.”

Two Hispanic restaurants in New Jersey are in the process of learning this.

Alexander Duran, who owns Son Cubano in West New York and Ventanas in Fort Lee, said he had to make adjustments on the fly.

“I reinvented myself because, while this is temporary, I had to think about what I did have — two kitchens.”

Both restaurants now offer takeout and catering. Customers can order through Chownow, UberEats and similar platforms. When restaurants are allowed to reopen, Duran feels some people will be more likely to opt to take out. Now, he said, he’ll be able to better handle that option.

Alejandro Ferrer of Jersey City-based Cavany Foods is seeing that now. Ferrer said he’s had a 200% increase in sales during COVID-19.

“Online sales will be the future even after COVID-19 passes, because working from home will continue,” he said.

Ferrer has a customized app for his gourmet, healthy meal business, but it also is available on most delivery apps.

“If businesses don’t have the money to make their own app, they should at least get on other delivery platforms where they will be advertised,” he said.

With more than 120,000 Hispanic-owned businesses in New Jersey, De La Hoz said the value proposition in the digital economy is clear. Aburto said it’s one of the reasons the USBAEC has partnered with a number of minority business chambers, so all minority business owners have guidance transitioning online.

“Businesses have to work with whoever they feel comfortable with,” Aburto said. “COVID-19 has shown them an online presence is not a luxury; it is a necessity.”

De La Hoz agreed.

“This is probably a conversation that didn’t happen a few years ago or a few months ago,” he said. “But right now, it’s very important, because we are facing a new reality where everybody would prefer to make cashless payments and buy things online.”

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