When the pandemic threatened to put local retailers out of business, Vasiliki Papanikolopoulos sprang into action.
Papanikolopoulos, a chemical engineer turned marketing professional who lives near Lake Harriet, wanted to find a way to support local shops in the early days of the stay-at-home order. She founded an organization called Minnesotans Unite, which has since been redubbed Coimatan, to help bring business to local retailers and create a network of support among small merchants.
“What drives all this is a real passion for retail and small businesses,” she said.
In the beginning, Papanikolopoulos reached out to Gallery 360 in Fulton and asked how to help. From there she began connecting with shops across the Twin Cities and worked to help them sell gift cards and do marketing in the form of storytelling on social media.
Now she’s working with a variety of Southwest Minneapolis shops and restaurants including Belle Weather, Digs, The Fitting Room, Hunt & Gather, June, Revival and Victory.
Southwest retailers say they’ve been grateful that someone wanted to help, and that the gift card sales and additional advertising on social media from Coimatan has helped send shoppers their way.
“I think people want to shop local and they don’t know where to begin,” said Katie Koster, who runs the gift store Digs at 38th & Grand.
Koster’s wide selection of fabrics kept her open as an essential business during the stay-at-home order, with much of her material selling out for use in homemade masks. Her regular customers have continued to shop with her, but she thinks Coimatan’s efforts have helped reach some new clientele and that by bringing a large group of retailers together, the campaign has a stronger voice.
“She promotes everyone so well and so often,” Koster said.
And Papanikolopoulos is not charging a fee to member businesses. Although the organization is not a nonprofit, she says it’s not about the money.
But to help make the effort sustainable, and to further promote her partners, Papanikolopoulos is launching Coimatan’s first products, which she calls Celebration Boxes. The boxes contain items from various affiliated shops and she believes they make for good gifts. She hopes to launch more boxes in time for the holiday gift season. The boxes are ordered online, but picked up at partnered stores, another strategy to get people in the door. The profits are split between participating retailers and Coimatan.
After the death of George Floyd, Papanikolopoulos added a metro-wide directory of small businesses owned by Black, Indigenous and people of color to make it easier for people to find shops they want to support.
Coimatan is continuing to expand, she said, and is looking for new ways to benefit small business in the area.
“We’re always looking for more organizations and individuals to get involved,” Papanikolopoulos said.