At the height of the pandemic, Philadelphia’s unemployment rate was 17 percent, and businesses and residents struggled to make it through.
Seeing this seemingly insurmountable problem, some of the city’s brightest technologists stepped forward last year to build and use their talents to solve specific issues their communities face because of the pandemic. In the past year, business closures have increased all over the U.S., with Yelp reporting last September that more than 150,000 businesses have shuttered permanently nationwide due to the impact of the pandemic.
Kiera Smalls was eager to help the Philly community keep businesses open when she became a part of the founding team of Bloc Delivery, an online ordering and ebike-powered delivery service that empowers customers to shop locally for their everyday needs. The company connects customers to products and has helped businesses thrive during an extended global crisis while providing an eco-friendly delivery experience that’s sustainable and better for the environment.
“Bloc Delivery was launched at a time where small businesses were running out of options due to the pandemic and social distancing restrictions,” Smalls told The Plug. “I was inspired to help formalize Bloc Delivery because it caters to a neglected group in the delivery space: small businesses.”
Bloc Delivery operates Monday through Friday, serving customers on a next-day delivery basis. Customers can order products from local businesses within a two-mile radius of them across various parts of Philadelphia and a few neighborhoods in New Jersey. The company’s delivery specialists deliver orders using electric-powered cargo bikes.
Steady growth and progress
Launched in March 2020, Bloc Delivery helps customers get their everyday needs and supports local businesses looking to reach and retain diverse customers. Smalls said the company has evolved since its launch to focus more on purpose-driven ecommerce.
“IBM did a poll of 19,000 consumers from 28 countries that found that purpose-driven shopping will dominate consumer behavior in the coming decade,” Smalls said. “People want to be more intentional about where they spend their dollars, want to support businesses doing good, as well as help, take care of the environment. We believe Bloc helps with all of those and more.”
Smalls said demand for Bloc Delivery’s online ordering and delivery service grew even more during the holiday season last year. Even though it’s still a young company, Bloc Delivery has been able to lay roots in several parts of Philadelphia and New Jersey with plans to expand nationally. The company started by serving marginalized parts of Philadelphia before expanding further.
“We’ve been able to support more businesses, but we recognize we aren’t in every area of the city yet,” Small said. “When you use Bloc Delivery, you help keep local businesses open while reinvesting into your community.”
As it eyes expansion, Smalls said Bloc Delivery is always thinking about other delivery service competitors like InstaCart, Uber Eats, and Doordash. Something that sets Bloc Delivery apart is that it doesn’t deliver hot foods or takeout, and the company values sustainable delivery methods first, with delivery specialists using electric cargo bikes to deliver orders instead of cars. Bloc Delivery customers can decide what type of businesses they want to support, whether a minority, immigrant, LGBTQ+ or women-owned shop.
“It might not just be that you’re looking for toilet paper, but you’re looking to buy toilet paper specifically from a Black-owned business,” Smalls said. “We’re further building out our ecommerce to allow you to do that.”
Bloc Delivery didn’t want to fall into the gig economy, so the company hires delivery specialists as employees and not independent contractors, so they have access to benefits. Bloc Delivery’s team is ten employees strong, four of whom are delivery specialists with weekly work shifts.
While it’s still working on raising venture capital, the bootstrapped company makes money by charging delivery fees and collecting a percentage on sales made on its platform.
“We haven’t raised venture capital yet, but we’re having some promising conversations,” Smalls said. “Right now, we are socializing Bloc with investors, getting more customers, and receiving invaluable feedback.”
Smalls’ journey into leadership at Bloc Delivery
The wheels of the startup were already turning when Bloc Delivery founders Allison Cohen and Jennifer Grega asked Smalls to join the team last August. She decided to come on as general manager because the company was catering to small businesses in her community, a hyperlocal market she feels has always been neglected in the delivery industry. Boosting small businesses is a part of the local economy she thought needed support.
As a Philadelphia native, Smalls values the local community, and pouring back into it is something important to her. She grew up on the west side of the city, and her grandfather was a local business owner in North Philly. It was there she got her start as an entrepreneur, launching an inclusive fitness community called City Fit Girls.
“This was my entry point to building a business. This was my way of bridging my love for community-building and my curiosity for entrepreneurship.”
While her official title is GM, Smalls said she’s also focused on the marketing and community-building side of the business. She’s been doing some work on customer engagement, making sure Bloc Delivery is reaching as many people as possible and improving on the company’s robust offerings from diverse shops.
“It’s very important to us to really build community and make sure that we are providing a service that customers want and not something that we just think is great,” Smalls said.
Goals and the future ahead
Long term, Bloc Delivery wants to attract as many purpose-driven customers across the nation to use its platform to support local small businesses in their markets. The company wants to become more than just a typical delivery service; it’s focused on serving the environment.
Regarding scale, Smalls said Bloc Delivery could add other modes of transportation and potentially launch a fulfillment center. This summer, Bloc Delivery will be updating its online platform to better serve customers and expand shop partners. The company plans to do this by expanding with more store partners and including more inventory management tools.
Smalls said Bloc Delivery has significantly increased available stores and products to shop from, initially starting with 300 products and now sourcing more than 1,000 items from more than ten stores. Some Philly stores you can find on Bloc Delivery’s platform include High Point Cafe, Lace in the Moon, a crochet shop, and Gorilla Power, a seller of wellness products and plant-based energy bars.
“We want to make sure that those folks who are already thinking that way know about Bloc, and those who aren’t thinking that way eventually will, and it’ll be because of our service.”