Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.
In the glass ellipse of Tsai CITY on Saturday, September 16, people trickled into the launch event of Sillable—a new shopping app determined to make local brick-and-mortar stores digitally accessible. In the weeks leading up to the event, flyers and stickers were posted around Yale’s campus, slapped onto toilet paper dispensers, bathroom walls, bulletin boards, and telephone poles. The app, created by recent Yale graduates, allows local businesses to showcase samples of their products. Users can scroll through products and purchase them on the app to pick up in-store.
Envisioned to resemble a high-end, very small flea market, the launch party hosted eight local New Haven businesses set up in a semicircle of tables, each displaying sample merchandise. Visitors, mainly undergraduate and graduate students, browsed through the selections, rotating through clothes, bike gear, dorm accessories, and beauty supplies. On one end, several students waited in line to get their eyebrows waxed by Karolina Hasaan, the owner of Beauty in Bliss. On the other, they rustled through a rack of carefully selected, autumn-toned clothes from Odeon Fashion, frequently walking away with a purchase. The Sillable team, composed of Yale ’23s and a stray ’25, flitted around the room, helping stores set up merchandise and occasionally touching up a modest balloon arch in the middle of the room.
People weaved through the balloon arch which was carefully balanced on two whiteboards, each scribbled with the question “Why do you #shoplocal?” Attendees were invited to answer in writing. Among the legible answers: “Handmade goods”, a very solemn “Because it’s important to support people in our community” next to a bubbly “Love supporting local New Haven ppl & goods—keep slaying” (with a heart), and in large capital letters, “THESE STORE OWNERS” (with yet another heart).
As people drifted around the room and to various booths, the Sillable team of four was persistently occupied. It was initially difficult to find Sillable co-founder Lele Xu DP ’23, and spy a time when she wasn’t moving or preoccupied with a task. But once located, I was able to talk with her—while, of course, she was setting up another whiteboard, framed with an ever-present array of balloons.
“I think this party really embodies the app, the values of community, and fun,” Xu said. “We want people to be able to shop, have fun while they’re doing it, and with the heart of the community in mind. All of these local stores, honestly,”—she paused to uncap a black dry-erase marker—“work so hard, and our vision is really to be able to showcase all of their products to local customers in a way that can be easily discovered.”
The launch party seemed to serve as a physical manifestation of the digital platform’s values. “I vaguely looked at some of [the stores] before on the street, but I think coming here really gave me the opportunity to get a glimpse of what they sell,” Gariyasi Garg, a Tobin Pre-doctoral Fellow in Economics, said. This “glimpse” explains Sillable’s goal to provide a brief look into the stores, thus operating like a display on a windowsill.
Sillable was founded by Lele Xu DP ’23, Aaron Daniels TC ’23, and Burton Lyng-Olsen MC ’25, with a common vision for a sustainable, community-centered approach to consumption. The origin of the start-up is this: Daniels (the idea man, as Xu described him) wanted to quickly acquire a piece of luggage. Even Amazon and Walmart would have taken too long, and they just didn’t feel sustainable. So Daniels turned to local businesses.
“But it was hard to walk into every single store and go through all the racks and ask about a specific bag,” Xu explained while scribbling details for a raffle on the whiteboard. The idea for the company emerged in a desire to conveniently see local options online, “to be discoverable,” she said.
She paused and leaned back, gazing critically at her all-uppercase writing: letters sprawling across the board, straining with the urge to remain level but gradually slanting downwards. Seemingly satisfied with her work, Xu turned to me for what felt like the first time in our interview.
“It started with just not wanting to shop at Amazon,” she said, describing that experience as “very impersonal, very unsustainable, and very low-quality. Local businesses … just have such cool things, such unique things that you can’t find on Amazon or Temu.”
But Sillable has its drawbacks, lacking the convenience of delivery and wide ranges of products offered by big companies like Amazon and Walmart. According to the team, their focus lies elsewhere. The app encourages consumers to physically visit the businesses once they get a preview of what is offered. This approach may allow for a greater understanding of the store’s unique character, portraying owners and workers as real people. Specifically for businesses selling handmade goods, each product is personally connected to its maker, with intent and style physically embedded within its material. There’s also a sense of accountability: people are able to visually perceive the quality and character of the items at the store, as well as to reach the owners in person.
It’s sensible—the app directs attention towards small businesses and aims to foster the local economy instead of large, money-guzzling corporations. But still, the convenience of big companies like Amazon is undeniable. Fingers ultimately fly straight to the delivery option that brings items straight to your doorstep—or to the Student Package Center, with bins drowning in cardboard boxes and plastic wraps.
It must be acknowledged that the age of digital convenience, as championed by Amazon, is not always moral, or righteous. In fact, the appreciation of art and creation of handmade goods is more than often trivialized and devalued. Sillable carries an admirable goal of bringing attention back to the people. “It’s really about de-globalizing, and bringing people back to what matters most—which is what people make.”
Em Tchorz, Sillable’s marketing specialist, said, “Art is important; this is important. And a side consequence is that 48 dollars out of every hundred spent locally goes back into the local economy, right, whereas when you shop on Amazon, you have no control over where that [money] is going. It’s kind of, like, the idea of spending your money where it counts.”
With an optimistic goal of ethical consumption, Sillable invites students to look beyond Yale’s campus and bridge the gap between the university and New Haven. Users are encouraged to engage with the community: the app directs attention to stores potentially unknown to students who have never ventured outside of campus. “We’d never be able to replicate the in-store experience here,” Xu said as she gestured to the tables behind us, softly bustling with customers flicking through items and owners gently swaying on their feet. “The point is not for people to have a massive ten billion catalog of all the items they can get. It’s really to have this: a curated vibe of the store. It’s meant to be engaging.”
One of the owners of The Devil’s Gear Bike & Board, Johnny B, created a store page on Sillable in hopes of engaging local students. Speaking of the Sillable team, he said, “They reached out to us, and we thought it was a great idea. We wanted to let Yale students know that—guess what? Come off campus. Explore New Haven. It’s a pretty unique and cool city.”
A worker from MINIPNG, a New Haven clothing store, also noted that MINIPNG was “very connected to the community” and using Sillable would be a good opportunity to “bring students to the stores with a sense of direction of where to go.”
The app itself looks appealing: a smart, white “S” popping out from the outline of a shopping bag, with labels all in a sensible, calm purple. It’s also organized coherently, with different sections indicating types of products such as: men’s fashion, accessories, shoes, beauty & personal care, gifts, pets & hobbies, and electronics. It does, however, seem to have some frequent glitching: anytime I tried to click on the tab appealingly labeled “Best Finds Under $15,” the app closed on itself, and I was left staring at my home screen—very much not a best find under $15. This happened for every single tab until I actually created an account. Then, the tabs became clickable, and displayed more options for each category.
Xu championed a rewards system as a significant selling point during the launch event. When I created an account, a QR code became available for scan at stores to receive 7% cash back rewards. Users are also able to claim daily rewards, and build up “kudos” in order to obtain discounts and free prizes. After I was able to successfully click from item to item without too much glitching, I discovered that Sillable has convenient features that organize products by type, but also by store. Addresses are linked on each store page to direct users to visit the actual brick-and-mortar store, emphasizing yet again the motive of making local businesses discoverable.
Ultimately, we have to applaud a group of young people, carving a bold place for their innovation and ideas in the New Haven community. It’s an admirable thing, to weave goals for ethical consumption into your own creation, and then to position it for public use and scrutiny. Regardless of whether aspirations for connection and accessibility will truly bloom into reality, Sillable is a fresh effort towards change.