Do Identity-Based Shopping Lists Work?

The themed roundups encouraging consumers to shop at, say, Black-owned businesses have increased in popularity, promising consumers a feel-good way to shop—and designers featured on them say they’re paying off.
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On June 5, 2020, Courtney Ismain’s phone would not stop buzzing. Alongside her sister Khalia Ismain and Terory Briscoe-Larebo, Courtney is a cofounder of Jamii, a London-based independent marketplace and discount card that promotes Black-owned brands across the U.K. That day, Courtney’s phone was notifying her that a new discount card was being sold every few minutes. Courtney was used to working hard to meet the needs of her customers and vendors, but this rush was different. It was larger than she had seen before and came at a time of great uncertainty—the start of the pandemic—and at a time of great unrest, as communities reckoned with historic and contemporary anti-Black racism following the murder of George Floyd and killing 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 shared far and wide, and right before June 5, Jamii was featured on one of them.

Lists like the one that featured Jamii have grown more common in recent years (including in this publication). They’re like a "Shop Local" window decal for the age of e-commerce. These lists direct dollars away from Amazon or Walmart and toward independent businesses with 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 instance, or businesses run by women for International Women’s Day. To business owners, these lists can be bittersweet—some entrepreneurs note that the people writing these lists rarely make purchases themselves—but their impact can be striking nonetheless. According to one report in the New York Times, a Black-owned bookstore in Chicago saw its weekly sales skyrocket from 3,000 books to 50,000 following the outpouring of interest in buying from Black-owned businesses during the summer of 2020. At Jamii, Courtney saw something similar unfold.

Courtney (left) and Khalia Ismain of Jamii

Courtney (left) and Khalia Ismain of Jamii

"June fifth was our busiest day for Jamii card sales ever," she says. While the day’s sales figures marked a passing high, Courtney notes that interest in Jamii from both consumers and commercial organizations has been longer lasting, and it’s made a material difference to the community Courtney and her cofounders aim to uplift. From the start, their goal for Jamii was to make shopping from Black-owned businesses a part of everyday life. With a Jamii card, members receive discounts and deals on everything from skincare to homeware while supporting independent Black-owned businesses and their owners. Courtney says, "It’s really about putting your money where your mouth is to make change, and I’m glad that there’s been a shift."

"We wanted to make people go off the beaten track to discover new businesses they’d never heard of before," Courtney continues. She points out that vendors from marginalized backgrounds often face a variety of hurdles to clear, including fewer funding opportunities, smaller networks, and structural disadvantages felt across everything from schooling to housing. After conducting a recent survey of Black-owned business owners, Courtney and her cofounders realized that Black-owned businesses were going to be particularly impacted by the current recession in Britain and partnered with AirBnB to distribute £20,000 to help independent Black-owned businesses stay afloat. (Their full report is scheduled to be published in February.) 

The Jamii pop-up store at BOXPARK Shoreditch in the U.K.

The Jamii pop-up store at BOXPARK Shoreditch in the U.K.

While the buzz following a feature on a high-profile shopping list might boost sales for some businesses, owners note that the boosts are short-lived. Krizia Flores, a first-generation Nicaraguan-American and the ceramist and founder behind Concrete Geometric, compares being included in Latinx Heritage Month lists to the deluge of orders before Christmas. She prepares for both celebrations the same way: She makes sure her back stock is at the ready for the rush. 

But that’s not to say these lists are bad. For Krizia, identity-themed shopping lists make her feel closer to other makers and entrepreneurs from similar backgrounds. "When I first started in 2013, it felt like a race, with everyone against one another," Krizia says. But in the time since, she’s seen a shift in how people think about independent businesses. In her experience, being featured 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."

"I personally like to shop using these lists," says Ninon Choplin, the French designer behind neenineen ceramics in Los Angeles. In their experience, being featured on lists of queer artists and makers for Pride often leads to requests from within the queer community, especially from people who are looking for gifts for their partners to commemorate anniversaries and special occasions. "This feels extra special," they say. 

Ninon Choplin of neenineen ceramics with some of their creations

Ninon Choplin of neenineen ceramics with some of their creations

The idea of buying from businesses owned and operated within your community isn’t a particularly new concept—walk through any major metropolitan area and you’ll find corners filled with grocers, clothing stores, and retail outlets that cater to members of specific diasporas who often can’t find what they need at main-street markets and big box retailers. Blair Paysinger cofounded Post 21, a marketplace for design-first 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 it a white mob burned the neighborhood to the ground. Over the course of a day in May 1921, the mob brutally murdered hundreds of residents and flattened the center of creativity, community, and family. 

Juana grew up in Los Angeles’s Jefferson Park, where supporting Black-owned businesses, healthcare professionals, and banks was part of her day-to-day 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 art from Black artisans and makers with the same ease as adding another bedsheet to your Amazon shopping cart. And while they had long planned to launch Post 21 on the anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 2020, Blair says that as they watched the 2020 protests unfold, they wondered whether the time was right to open their business. But they knew that their mission of supporting and uplifting the Black community was one worth pursuing, and Post 21 was launched as they’d originally planned. Blair says, "We realized that we should keep going, because what we were doing was a part of the change that we wanted to see." 

"We thought we were going to start very small, and that did not happen," Blair continues. Their project resonated with shoppers, and within six months, they were 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 at any location.

"Some people walk up to us crying, saying, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this. We come here every month, and they’ve never done anything like this,’" Blair says. She treasures the bond that she shares with her customers and looks forward to meeting them at the Downtown Disney District shop or at Post 21 pop-up stores throughout the year. Blair says, "That connection is just really amazing." 

A Jamii pop-up marketplace event

A Jamii pop-up marketplace event

It’s a common sentiment shared by many of the people I spoke to for this story: Celebrations like Pride or Black History Month and the shopping lists they inspire might catalyze a temporary flurry of orders, but the feeling of community is much longer lasting. In October, Jamii partnered with the now-defunct furniture retailer to present work by Black design companies including Maureen Luxe Studio, Bespoke Binny, and Lolly & Kiks at its London showroom, and Ninon tells me that neenineen ceramics recently partook 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’re not just there to buy a mug or rug; they’re there to celebrate people who share their experiences and their histories. "People will just be walking by, and they’ll come in," Courtney says. "It’s magic. Next thing you know, they’ll come up to the next pop-up, and they’ll bring their cousins and their best friends."

"You have to lead from what’s true to you," says Matthew Hermann, cofounder of Boy Smells. Since 2016, he’s sold high-end candles and fragrances with his partner David Kien. They tell me that their "genderful" approach is one that resonates with both queer and straight people. They mix traditionally masculine and feminine notes freely and in unexpected pairings, and their products offer personal and interior fragrances that exist outside of the often rigid gender binaries of perfumes and colognes. "We didn’t really embrace [our queerness] until a couple of 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 why people are going to be drawn to you." 

That’s where celebrations like Black History Month and Pride play their part: They open a conversation to people from outside these communities and encourage people to change their consumption patterns. And while identity-based shopping lists offer inroads to buying from businesses with roots in marginalized communities, the connection these lists inspire is much deeper. Courtney notes that even after Jamii’s big boom on June 5, 2020, many shoppers from both within and outside the Black community have stuck with Jamii. It’s a welcome change, and one that Courtney is keen to celebrate. As she reminds me, "Black History Month is every month for us." 


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