When the coronavirus first appeared in Florida and information about transmission was scant or unreliable, hundreds of area residents turned to services like Instacart, Amazon Fresh and Shipt to avoid risking exposure while filling the larder for the lockdown. Once considered a luxury, these grocery and shopping delivery services were instantly transformed into essential lifelines, worth the price for the added safety.
Downloads of delivery apps skyrocketed as much as 200% and the percentage of the population that tried such services rose to over 55% by the end of March. But with the increased demand came system overloads and delivery glitches that left many customers less than satisfied. Because contracted shoppers were assigned to orders randomly, the quality of service could vary greatly depending on who was doing the delivery.
That’s when Tameka Fountaine, who’d been delivering for Instacart and Shipt since November, recognized an opportunity. Often when she dropped off carefully selected and neatly packed items to her customers, their tips came with a plaintive request for her to be the one who would fulfill every order they placed.
“People always said, ‘We want you to be our shopper every time,’” says Fountaine, 48, who lives in Bradenton. “And I said, ‘Unfortunately, I can’t control what orders I get.’ So I started my business in response to my regulars wanting to have one consistent shopper they could trust who they knew would always do a good job and would develop a relationship with them.”
Thus was born Black Market Personal Shopper Services, a luxury shopping and delivery service without a luxury price tag. Working through her website, www.blackmarketmanasota.com, and an app managed by Dumpling – which helps users create their own limited liability corporations, offers a credit card that allows shoppers to buy groceries before customer payment and centralizes deliveries – Fountaine offers clients both broader more personalized services than can be obtained through the sites she previously worked for.
For example, instead of offering groceries from just one location, with Fountaine, shoppers can choose from Publix, Trader Joe’s or any of the membership box stores like Costco, Sam’s Club or B.J.s. She’s willing to hit multiple places for a single delivery, and visit a variety of businesses, from office supply stores to pet shops to restaurants. Recently she researched and picked up the appropriate car battery for a stranded customer.
She’s also happy to specialize orders with a unique touch. For a client who ordered a last minute birthday cake that had to be keto and told her she’d get a bonus if she could find one with orchids in the design, Fountaine found a cake and picked up a live orchid for decoration. When she included a unicorn card to go with her delivery of a special birthday dinner for a young girl, her mother said, “It’s like you personally knew her!”
Fountaine keeps in constant touch with clients by text, even as she’s shopping, to avoid disappointments or unmet expectations. She’ll even reach out to clients she’s not shopping for if she notices an item they regularly purchase is on sale when she’s working on other deliveries.
“When I have an awareness of deals or BOGOs (buy one/get one free), I’ll text my clients who order those particular items based on their purchase history with me,” she says. “Or if the store is out of something and I don’t know their preference, there will always be communication.”
The cost varies from 15% to 30% of the order total, plus tip, which is comparable to larger services. But, unlike those services, there is never any markup on the goods themselves. Moreover, she is knowledgeable in a variety of diets – keto, organic, gluten-free, low-sodium, diabetic, accommodates food allergies and dietary restrictions, and is willing to work with lower-income clients who may rely on government support and EBT cards.
As a Black woman, she’s also familiar with hair and personal products that cater to the African-American market.
“But don’t ask me about makeup,” she laughs. “Makeup is a non-starter because I don’t wear it. If I have the option to put on makeup or sleep 15 minutes longer, I’m going to sleep.”
The business name was suggested by Fountaine’s 13-year-old daughter, who came up with it both to reflect her mother’s heritage and in response to the unrest after the death of George Floyd. She meant it as a joke, but Fountaine liked its distinction and it immediately provided entrée to a new local Facebook page, Support Sarasota- Manatee Black-Owned Businesses, that surfaced just after her business did. Not only has the group provided her with new clients, Fountaine has been able to introduce her customers to some of the other businesses featured on the page.
“There’s these little-known Black-owned businesses she knows about and one time I saw a photo of a food on Facebook that looked so good and she said, ‘Oh, that’s so-and-so,’” says Cynthia Tompkins, who started using Black Market’s services in June. “The next time she was there, she texted me and said, ‘I’m making a pick-up here, do you want me to get something up for you to try? I appreciated that because I’m interested in supporting Black-owned or any under-promoted industries.”
Tompkins said she regularly relied on Instacart prior to discovering Black Market, with some “epic failures.” Among them were an order of “one unit” of garlic that ended up being a full pound (“What is anyone going to do with 17 heads of garlic?”), a whole pork tenderloin that appeared as thinly sliced pork chops, and a carton of eggs, with all 12 smashed.
“With Instacart you’d have some good experiences and some bad ones and when there was a good one, you just wished you could request that person all the time,” Tompkins says. “This was the answer to my problem. Every other shopper I’ve had just wanted to get in and out and on to the next client. Tameka wants to build a relationship.”
Tompkins says she has no plans to cut back on Black Market’s services, even when pandemic restrictions ease and a vaccine is readily available.
“I actually love shopping, but it’s just easier this way and it’s affordable,” she says. “I would recommend her to everyone but then I’d be afraid she’d be too busy for me.”
Fountaine currently has about two dozen steady clients, but she’s limited herself because she’s also working as a census enumerator, fulfilling a personal commitment to “making sure we’re not undercounted so we can get the resources and representation we need.” She had enough business over the summer to employ her daughter and her best friend and she hopes to be able to supply employment to others in the future.
She’s not worried that demand for her business will diminish post-pandemic. For one thing, she’s finely attuned to the changing demand; during the upcoming holiday season, for example, she plans to shop, wrap and deliver Christmas gifts. But she also believes the pandemic’s enforced isolation has spurred both a reconfiguring of people’s priorities and an increased demand for meaningful relationships that will serve her business’s future well.
“The reason for this business really taking off may have been COVID, but during this time people have started to recognize what’s important to them and they’re willing to start outsourcing some of their lesser tasks to focus on the more important ones,” she said. “At the same time, they’ve really come to appreciate that personal touch.”