When Jonathan Sandals moved to Seattle from Montreal in 2019, he fell in love with his new city, and the Ballard neighborhood where he settled, because he was taking everything in with fresh eyes and appreciated the unique character and ideas around him. Small businesses were a big part of that, and he came up with his own idea to support them.
In the home of Amazon, Sandals has created Sook, a Google Chrome extension that aggregates product listings from numerous small store websites in one place and makes it easier to “browse online and buy from the boutique next door.”
“Despite the fact that every store is mandated, essentially, to have an online business right now, they’re all kind of impossible to find and they’re all working against each other as individual websites and there’s no easy way to shop them,” Sandals told GeekWire. “There’s people who told me they had their [online] stores up for three years and only sold nine products from them.”
Sook allows a shopper to search across categories and price ranges. A shopper looking for a jacket in Ballard, for example, can browse the offerings of 20 different stores in one place.
“I needed to be able to build this without [store owners] lifting a finger,” Sandals said. “So I figured out the best way to do that is to build kind of an aggregator tool. What we’re trying to do with that extension is make it as easy or easier to buy local as it is to buy from corporate websites.”
It’s a fight that was spotlighted in the U.S. government’s recent antitrust report against Amazon (see pages 256-257). The U.S. House Judiciary Committee antitrust subcommittee says Amazon, as the most-visited website in the world for e-commerce and shopping, has a lock on households with a Prime membership when it comes to online search habits. It’s almost impossible for independent online retailers to survive with just their own sites.
Sandals said businesses onboarded by Shopify are told they’re going to be able to compete through things like search engine optimization or different social ads.
“Coming from that space, working in that space for 12 years, I know that they have no chance,” he said. “People are visiting fewer and fewer and fewer URLs. The last thing you want to do is insert a new URL for a different purpose into somebody’s life that they’re never going to visit.”
Sandals, who worked in marketing and advertising for 12 years for AskMen, said he made some money in Bitcoin in 2018 and after taking a year off to travel, settled in Seattle where he now works as a content marketing strategist for Coding Dojo. And as he settled on his new part-time project, he hired some developers to help with the backend.
Sook has been live for two months and got some attention in Ballard in August and on Reddit on Friday. While Seattle is the launch city, it works in more than 20 other cities including Portland, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and more. It’s only set up to aggregate small businesses that use Shopify, but the plan is to expand to include Squarespace, Magento, BigCommerce and other e-commerce providers soon.
Sook also works if a user is shopping on a bigger site such as Amazon or Nordstrom by letting a shopper know, “Hey, it looks like you’re looking for shirts. These are some similar products in your neighborhood.”
Sandals figures if the idea takes off, the money will come, perhaps through local email marketing or paid subscriptions. He didn’t move to Seattle with the intention of taking on Amazon, but launching an e-commerce site begs the question about the behemoth in his midst.
“I was speaking to some VCs in California who reached out. They asked me specifically, ‘How has this resonated in the home of Amazon?’” Sandals said, adding that he said “discomfort” seems to be the nicest way to describe people’s relationship with the tech giant in the city.
“People are looking for alternatives to it,” he said.