Do identity-based shopping lists work?
On June 5, 2020, Courtney Ismain’s phone kept buzzing. Alongside her sister Khalia Ismain and Terory Briscoe-Larebo, Courtney is co-founder of Jamii, a London-based independent marketplace and discount card that promotes black-owned brands across the UK That day Courtney’s phone informed her that a new discount card was being sold every the few minutes. Courtney used to work hard to meet the needs of her customers and suppliers, but this rush was different. It was bigger than she had seen before and came at a time of great uncertainty – the start of the pandemic – and a time of great unrest, as communities relied on historic anti-black racism and contemporary after the murder of George Floyd and the murder of Breonna Taylor. To support black communities around the world, newspapers, magazines and influencers published long lists of black-owned businesses to buy from that were widely shared, and just before June 5, Jamii was featured. on one of them.
Lists like the one that featured Jamii have become more common in recent years (including in this post). They’re like a “Shop Local” window sticker for the e-commerce era. These listings direct dollars from Amazon or Walmart to independent businesses in hopes of supporting a more diverse and varied retail landscape. They run the gamut of identities and celebrations, championing queer and trans designers for Pride, for example, or female-led businesses for International Women’s Day. To contractors, these lists can be bittersweet— some entrepreneurs note that the people who write these lists rarely make purchases themselves — but their impact can nonetheless be striking. According to a report in the New York Timesa black-owned bookstore in Chicago saw weekly sales soar by 3,000 books to 50,000 following surge of interest in buying from black-owned businesses in the summer of 2020 At Jamii, Courtney saw something similar unfold.
“June 5 was our busiest day for Jamii card sales,” she says. While the day’s sales numbers peaked, Courtney notes that interest in Jamii from consumers and trade organizations lasted longer, and it made a material difference to the community than Courtney and her co-founders aim to elevate. From the outset, their goal for Jamii was to make shopping at black-owned businesses a part of everyday life. With a Jamii card, members get discounts and deals on everything from skincare to homewares, while supporting independent black-owned businesses and their owners. Courtney says, “It’s really about putting your money where your mouth is to give change, and I’m glad there’s been a change.”
“We wanted to take people off the beaten path to discover new businesses they had never heard of before,” continues Courtney. She points out that sellers from marginalized backgrounds often face a variety of hurdles to overcome, including fewer funding opportunities, smaller networks, and structural disadvantages felt in everything from school to housing. After conducting a recent survey of black-owned business owners, Courtney and her co-founders realized that black-owned businesses were going to be particularly hard hit by the current recession in Britain and teamed up with AirBnB to distribute £20,000 to help black-owned independent businesses stay. afloat. (Their full report is due out in February.)
While buzz following a feature on a high-profile shopping list may boost sales for some businesses, owners note that the increases are short-lived. Krizia Flores, first-generation American-Nicaraguan and ceramist and founder behind Geometric Concrete, compares being included in Latinx Heritage Month lists to the deluge of pre-Christmas orders. She prepares for both celebrations in the same way: she makes sure her stock is ready for the emergency.
But that doesn’t mean these lists are bad. For Krizia, identity-themed shopping lists bring her closer to other creators and entrepreneurs from similar backgrounds. “When I started in 2013, it was like a race, with everyone against each other,” says Krizia. But since then, she’s seen a shift in the way people view freelance businesses. In his experience, being on a list of designers who share a common experience feels less like a competition and more like a community. “Everyone is so supportive,” she says. “It’s such a different culture than it was before.”
“Personally, I like to shop using these lists,” says Ninon Choplin, the French designer behind nine-year-old ceramics in Los Angeles. In their experience, being on lists of queer artists and creators for Pride often leads to inquiries within the queer community, especially from people looking for gifts for their partners to commemorate birthdays and special occasions. “It’s very special,” they say.
The idea of buying from businesses owned and operated within your community isn’t a particularly new concept – walk around any major metropolitan area and you’ll find corners filled with grocery stores, clothing and retail outlets that cater to members of specific diasporas who often cannot find what they need in high street markets and at big box retailers. Blair Paysinger co-founded Post 21, a marketplace for early design products from Black-owned businesses, with her mother, Juana Williams, in 2020. Blair explains that they named Post 21 after Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street, which was a hub of black entrepreneurship and community in the early 20th century until a white mob burned down the neighborhood. On one day in May 1921, the mob brutally murdered hundreds of residents and razed the center of creativity, community and family.
Juana grew up in Los Angeles’ Jefferson Park, where supporting Black-owned businesses, medical professionals and banks was part of her daily life. Blair and Juana wanted to help consumers connect with black-owned businesses in the age of e-commerce and create a hub where you could find homewares, jewelry and artwork from artisans and makers. blacks with the same ease as adding another sheet to your Amazon. Basket. And while they had long planned to launch Post 21 on the anniversary of the Tulsa Race massacre in 2020, Blair says as they watched the 2020 protests unfold, they wondered if now was the time. come to open their business. But they knew their mission to support and uplift the black community was worth pursuing, and Post 21 launched as they originally planned. Blair says, “We realized we had to keep going because what we were doing was part of the change we wanted to see.”
“We thought we were going to start very small, and that didn’t happen,” Blair continues. Their project resonated with buyers, and within six months they were being courted by Disney for a long-term partnership. On November 26, 2021, Post 21 opened a permanent location in Anaheim’s Downtown Disney District, making the company the first black-owned Disney operating partner in any location.
“Some people come up to us crying and say, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. We come here every month and they’ve never done anything like this,” says Blair. She cherishes the bond she shares with her customers and looks forward to meeting them at the Downtown Disney District boutique or Post pop-up stores. 21 throughout the year Blair says: “That connection is really amazing.”
It’s a common sentiment shared by many I spoke to for this story: celebrations like Pride or Black History Month and the shopping lists they inspire could catalyze a temporary wave of commands, but the feeling of community lasts much longer. In October, Jamii teamed up with now-defunct furniture retailer Made.com to showcase the work of black design firms, including Maureen Luxury Studio, Bespoke Binnyand Lolly & Kiks in their London showroom, and Ninon tells me that Neenineen Ceramics recently took part in a queer Christmas market in Los Angeles, where they were able to mingle with a variety of queer artists, makers and design enthusiasts. When people visit these events, they are not just there to buy a mug or a mat; they are there to celebrate people who share their experiences and stories. “People will walk past and they will come in,” Courtney says. “It’s magic. The next thing you know, they’ll come to the next pop-up, and they’ll bring their cousins and their best friends.”
“You have to lead from what’s true for you,” says Matthew Hermann, co-founder of Boy Smells. Since 2016, he has been selling high-end candles and perfumes with his partner David Kien. They tell me that their “gendered” approach is one that resonates with both gay and straight people. They blend traditionally masculine and feminine notes freely and in unexpected accords, and their products offer personal and home fragrances that exist outside of the often rigid gender binaries of perfumes and colognes. “We didn’t really kiss [our queerness] until a few years into the brand, and we didn’t start talking about our queerness because we wanted the brand to have, like, broad appeal,” Matthew says. “But what makes you unique is is why people are going to be attracted to you.”
This is where celebrations like Black History Month and Pride play their part: they open up a conversation with people outside of those communities and encourage people to change their drinking habits. And while identity-based shopping lists make it possible to buy from businesses with roots in marginalized communities, the connection these lists inspire runs much deeper. Courtney notes that even after Jamii’s big boom on June 5, 2020, many black community and out-of-town shoppers remained loyal to Jamii. It’s a welcome change and one that Courtney wants to celebrate. As she reminds me, “Black History Month is every month for us.”