Selling fresh food online
Food & Drink, Technology

Thoughts on selling fresh food online

I came across this little conversation on Twitter the other night and it got me thinking about the challenge of successfully selling good quality fresh food and drink online. I think it is an interesting challenge for producers and retailers in Ireland right now and as everyone seems to be keen to sell more and more online.

In particular I’m interested in what’s emerging in Ireland at the moment as retail tries to make a comeback from the devastating years of 2008 to 2012. It is interesting to see various food and drink related entreprises becoming quite celebrated in Ireland at the moment – witness the viral rise of LovinDublin; the growth of food festivals like the LitFest in Ballymaloe; the continuing rise of the craft beer industry; the dozens of new restaurants thriving in Dublin 2; and yes I’ll even throw into this bracket the rise of the premium ranges in Lidl and Aldi countrywide. Whether its in our homes, our high streets or in our exports there is a high level of demand for quality food and drink products and technology means that many small producers can start to compete and carve a niche for themselves. Does the online experience follow through on this though?

For the past 7 years I have been doing about 80% of my food and drink shopping online through Superquinn and others. When my first daughter arrived in 2008 we had no time or inclination to go out shopping in the evening and we found that an online grocery delivery could be arranged in about 20 minutes at home. Since then I have been buying groceries online every week with Superquinn (now poorer for being Supervalu).

The convenience of online grocery shopping is the outright winner for me – I do not have the time or desire to push a trolley down an aisle ever again. It takes too much time out of my Saturday or Sunday and I end up buying at least €50 worth of products that I don’t really need. However I must also balance this with the fact that I have learnt to appreciate more and more the service and advice I get from individual shopkeepers over the past 2 or 3 years. Living and working in south city Dublin I’m lucky to have a wide range of quality offerings from wine shops like The Corkscrew and Baggot St Wines to food retailers in Donnybrook like Fox’s, Dunne’s, The Black Pig and Donnybrook Fair. In fact I’d like to see more local shops as there are little or no bakeries open in Dublin early on a Saturday morning; butchers are generally poor at promoting themselves and their products; and despite having one of the best agricultural industries in the world I think the farmers markets in Dublin are a grossly underdeveloped opportunity (they could learn a thing or two from Portland and Seattle).

Selling fresh produce and quality products online can be difficult for a number of reasons. In the interests of giving some feedback on the tweet mentioned above here are some thoughts on selling fresh food online :

Personality

In-store the customer is often interested in your advice and suggestions before making a purchase – it’s the reason they have gone to you instead of Tesco. I find that most companies don’t put enough product detail on their listings (Superquinn are poor at this in particular), they use poor images or none at all (which is a crime!) and there is no opinion given by the storekeeper (For example: why not simply suggest what food that wine will match? Or an alternative producer of that type of wine?). Try to convey the personality of your in-store business to your online business. The thought, effort and investment you put in your online store should be no different to that which has gone into the physical layout of your shop, the quality of your display fittings, the positioning of products and the simple cleanliness and layout of your store. Finally, the use of instant chat used by some companies completely fails in my experience – particularly with the rise of tablets. There are some things you will never be able to replicate online and a good chat with the shopkeeper is one of them.

User Experience #1

Get to understand and know something about User Experience (UX) in the context of your online presence. As a shopkeeper you surely have studied the typical habits of your customer as they walk through your door. You can identify the browsers from the thrifty and you must surely know how to spot the 50 year old male who was sent out for milk but will get distracted and go back home with €90 worth of salami, cheese and wine. The experience of an online shopper is no different and you need to understand what makes them buy more online. So experiment with your online efforts and get on top of your site’s analytics – over time you will begin to see patterns and understand your online customers better. From talking to them previously I know The Corkscrew have learned a good deal in this area but it takes time to learn it and it will always evolve.

User Experience #2

One other point on UX – you should most certainly not make your customer go through multiple steps to get to the checkout. This kind of hassle only serves to increase the number of aborted sales. Learn from the best and make it simple like Amazon does: get it done in one or two clicks. Amazon is not the most beautiful website in the world but it is certainly one of the most effective and successful.

Communication

I don’t have any statistics to prove it but my sense is that you will sell more online to existing customers than you will to new customers who have never been in-store. To grow your e-commerce you should focus on converting in-store customers to online customers. There is no exact science in how to do this and I expect it will depend on your business but from my own experience I would recommend that you communicate with your customers through several different channels and let them decide how best they want to hear from you. I follow some businesses on Twitter, others on Facebook and for a few others I have subscribed to their emails. For each business I use only one medium and that is my choice not theirs. Looking back on my own experiences I have bought by clicking on links, responding to tweets and turning up in-store to buy something I saw online. For your business I would therefore tell you to use all channels and let your customers decide how they would like to relate to you. And don’t worry about them not coming in to visit you just because they now also shop online with you. The experience will keep them coming back if you’re good at what you do.

Logistics & delivery charges

I have never minded paying for the delivery of my online purchase. Sometimes my Superquinn shop is free, other times it costs me €8. In my mind it is still worth paying €8 for my weekly shop because it saves me time and prevents me buying stuff I don’t need. If I spend over €100 on anything online then I would not expect to pay any delivery charge – the margin earned should be good enough to cover it. What can be frustrating however is poor communication on the delivery process and a lack of transparency – I also hate when the ‘picker’ for my order chooses bruised fruit or a product that’s about the reach its sell-by date. Fail to deliver quality and your e-commerce will fail too. Finally, if your margin or dedication allows it then throw a little something into the box also – a free sample or even just a little note of thanks – it’s what you often do in-store for a good customer isn’t it?


I could probably write another dozen pages on this but I won’t because this blog is just a hobby and I don’t get paid for this. However I will leave you some online shopping experiences worth having:

LovinDublin – order one of the lunch boxes and just watch how easy they make it for you. They know their customer has little time to execute.

The Corkscrew – I’ve bought wine from these guys in-store, online and even on Twitter one day when stuck in traffic. Their integrated marketing campaigns are probably the most impressive and the online experience is consistent with the in-store one. I can’t think of anyone doing better in Ireland at the moment.

Superquinn/Supervalu – I refer to the old and the new because as a Superquinn customer I’m still on the old Buy4Now platform rather than the Supervalu site. Buy4Now has been a very chequered experience: at times appalingly bad, other times average, the odd time good and never excellent. They would be better off starting from scratch and learning from the best in America but as a bloated bureaucratic plc Musgraves won’t do that. I’m trying to stop myself from ranting here.

Hell’s Kettle Farm – a beautifully simple website, great imagery and a story well told. A simple approach to e-commerce that is very effective. I bought my Christmas turkey from them online and picked up in-store from their relations in Dundrum. A great shopping experience from start to end.

Butchers/Bakers/Fruit & Veg/ Cheese – I haven’t bought online from any producer for these items. If a local butcher in South Dublin marketed himself online like The Corkscrew does then I’d probably be coming through his door most weekends. However buying this produce online can be tricky: I have a small family and a smaller freezer so I don’t need to buy 2kg of meat. One notable exception is James Whelan who seems to be an online pioneer in Irish butchery – he tweets too much though so I had to unfollow him.

I’d love to know what other thoughts and comments you have on this….

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on selling fresh food online

  1. I know what you mean Andrew. Every second week I have issues with Superquinn/Supervalu picking the wrong item. I have phoned up a couple of times to complain but its generally not worth the hassle. While I am expecting a better online experience when they switch platforms I think the issues with quality relate more to poor management in-store. In the long-run I suspect I will end up doing more of my shopping locally offline.

  2. Andrew says:

    Interesting. I stopped using Buy4Now, not because of the UX but because of the customer experience after the order was placed. Deliveries not arriving during selected time period; Bizarre product substitions, I once got a half pound of butter substituted for a one pound of butter; The straw that broke the camels back was once, when I went in store to complain about that days delivery, I found a product on the shelf that they had claimed was out of stock (and it hadn’t just arrived either).

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