There are some things a Google search can’t find. Grant Lea wants to fill that gap with Nytch, a Woodland-based mobile app that connects independent, offline businesses to local shoppers looking for specific items. “It is human-powered e-commerce,” says Lea, Nytch’s cofounder and CEO.
Through the app, a user describes what they want, their budget and how far they want to travel to pick up their purchase. If a local participating store can match the request, an employee from the store will respond with a recommendation; the item can be purchased online through Nytch or held for the customer to check out in person.
Lea worked in politics as a political aide for several years. Around 2015, after speaking with stakeholders, law clients and small-business owners, he kept hearing that e-commerce software wasn’t solving the issue brick-and-mortar stores were having.
“The problem is the way that small business retail has adjusted to the age of the internet,” Lea says. “As an example, a small clothing store will have two of a dress, not a hundred. When those two run out, the store orders different dresses — it’s microcuration. They survive on foot traffic.”
But that model isn’t always sustainable, and many businesses have items and assets that don’t fit into the e-commerce framework. For example, both thrift stores and farmers market growers have products that can change daily, but they might not be able to update their offerings online to keep pace. And in-store experts can’t always put their knowledge to use.
The concept of Nytch is a personalized solution in contrast to the common online shopping experience dominated by retail giants like Amazon, Target, Walmart, which, according to Lea, have eliminated people and their expertise from the equation.
“But the small businesses still around provide this expertise and experience really well,” he says. “They provide good customer service, knowing how to match the right item with the right person, which reduces returns, hassles and costs. Nytch empowers small businesses to do online what they do best in store.”
Nytch is offering its service entirely free to all of its businesses for the foreseeable future. “We do not want to profit when they are really working hard to meet expenses during these chaotic times,” said cofounder Grant Lea.
Various requests can be submitted through Nytch, including for thrift and second-hand items, and adoptable pets can be found through the startup’s partnership with rescue agencies. Nytch, run by a team of six around the world, had about 1,000 users and 70 businesses on the network within Yolo County as of February (with many more outside the service area awaiting access). The startup, which after a trial in 2016 officially launched in April 2019, is raising its first seed round of about $1.5 million, which will help launch strategic partnerships.
The app is free for shoppers. Nytch receives 10 percent commission on sales from businesses on the platform. There is no charge to create, maintain or close an account, Lea says.
For Shokoufeh Hanjani, the app has been invaluable. She runs a small boutique in downtown Davis that offers women’s clothing, shoes and accessories by local designers. She also travels and “hand picks pieces from pretty much everywhere,” she says.
Her store, Shu Shu’s, has been in business since 2014, but it has struggled to compete against Amazon, Nordstrom Rack and Neiman Marcus, she says. She tried to set up a website, but found the business spending more money than it was getting back. Plus, she needed a full-time employee to keep updating the sizes and uploading pictures of new items. She decided it wasn’t worth it.
In 2016, Hanjani met Lea, learned about Nytch and loved the idea right away. It allowed Shu Shu’s to have an online presence without a website. “We become the personal shoppers for online customers,” she says.
Hanjani estimates she has earned thousands of dollars through the app and that it raised the business “around 25 percent or more.” She has met customers she would not have met otherwise. Even when they come to the store and end up not buying the item they planned to buy, most of the time they buy other things. (Hanjani also uses Nytch herself as a shopper, having bought a chandelier and picture frames for her new house through the app.)
Lea sees a lot of potential of using data to improve inventory. Typically, a customer walks into a store, but the business owner doesn’t know who they are, what they want or where they came from. Nytch, as it expands, could help owners get a better idea of what’s trending and adjust their inventory accordingly, Lea says.
“Our driving mantra is, we don’t succeed until the small business succeeds,” Lea says. “This is something that takes an entire community to make work.”
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