Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, 42% of the US population bought groceries online in March 2020, nearly double the 22% reported in 2018 (Geekwire, 2020). Amazon's grocery orders during this time increased almost 50 times.
These statistics show a significant opportunity for farmers and growers – their customers are shopping for their products online. If the farmer doesn't have an eCommerce presence, customers will be shopping from their competitors.
In partnership with Local Line, an eCommerce platform for food suppliers, we presented a simple path for farmers to start selling products online. Read the article or watch the webinar to get detailed information on how to start up your eCommerce presence.
This webinar is part 2 of a 4 part series. Watch the rest of the series here.
Why Sell Online?
Besides the fact that customers are shopping online, eCommerce also saves you time and allows you to be more efficient in your operations; e-commerce tools provide fantastic functionality that eliminates much of the time that face-to-face business requires. Some e-commerce tools can also automate inventory tracking and product lists, as well as customer payments.
If you're not online, many customers will struggle to find you. Roadside stands and farmers' markets are helpful if your customers pass by and have time to stop or seek you out. Online sales allow customers to find you who may not drive by your business regularly.
Convenience is one reason to be online, but it may surprise you that the average order value increases when customers purchase products online. This is due to advanced AI recommendations and the ease of impulse purchasing.
Selling online helps even the playing field, as many big box stores and supermarkets offer online sales.
Be Willing to Experiment
When considering a new sales channel, be willing to experiment. You may have to learn new skills or think of new strategies specifically for your online sales. Product diversity is essential for online stores. If you don't have a few different products available, consider working with other farmers or businesses in your community to offer product diversity. You might offer boxes with your greens, carrots, and team up with a nearby deli and bakery to include meats and cheeses too.
Two Customer Types to Consider
Local farmers will often have two customer types who will buy from them.
The experience-based buyer – this buyer values the relationships they build with local businesses and will always prefer to shop in person. They will stand at your market store, have an excellent chat, and ask for more information. These customers are regulars and proud of that fact; they will be very loyal.
The convenience buyer – these buyers do not traditionally buy local food because they value convenience. They want something they can pick up quickly and not have to make a specific trip to a farmer's market on top of their supermarket run.
However, these buyers have been buying more local products since Covid-19 due to the increased convenience of delivery options. If you can provide a convenient shopping experience, you will attract more of these customers.
These buyers are less concerned about the story of your farm; they want to know what products you have available. When you market to these buyers, consider how they are marketed to by traditional retailers. If they shop at Target, for example, they are used to getting weekly email communication. Can you leverage that strategy for your business?
It is all about reminding the customer to place an order rather than "selling" to them. The goal is to have this behavior become ingrained so that customers order weekly from your online store.
Know How Customers Make Purchasing Decisions Online
Knowing what influences your customers' buying decisions is critical in eCommerce. Consider these user interface options to build customer trust in your online store:
- Use familiar platforms that they already know
- Make it easy and clear where to navigate to and what to do
- Incorporate frictionless and invisible interactions
- Use key features that catch the user's attention
- Have clearly labeled icons, images, headings, etc
If you are ever wondering if a customer would respond to something or not, put yourself in their shoes. Think about what makes you trust someone enough to buy from them or what has caused you to abandon the purchase before you complete the sale? We're all consumers and know what customers want.
Make your website as straightforward and easy as possible to reduce friction in the buying journey. Avoid causing customer frustrations, which adds barriers to the path a customer takes to make a purchase.
Payment Options. Multiple payment options are vital too. Allow your customer to pay you in the most convenient way, such as credit cards, PayPal, Amazon Pay, etc.
Clear Operating Hours. While a website is 24/7, your business will not be. If customers pick up their products, be clear on times they can do so. Funnel people into convenient times for you, but offer a variety of options. For example, provide pick-up points at your farm, the farmers market on the weekend, or the local community center, as long as customers pre-book their appointment.
Drive Online Traffic to your Store
The adage, "build it and they will come," isn't true for eCommerce; you have to take an active approach to driving traffic to your site.
Google My Business
Google My Business is where you manage your Google listing – it's what comes up in the search results when someone searches for the name of your farm – and will help drive current customers to your online store.
Especially with organic farms, people want to buy from businesses nearby. They will search for farms nearby through Google before visiting their website to purchase.
What Tools Do You Need to Set Up An Online Store?
Social media is one of the most accessible tools for your online store to attract new customers. It costs nothing to start the accounts, only a time to create and post content. Don't worry about being on every platform – start with the one your customers frequent the most.
The content you post will vary greatly depending on your brand and the platform. Entertaining posts are popular, and they don't need to be hilarious; they can just be amusing. The goal is not to necessarily sell on social media but to use it as a traffic source for your online store.
Keep in mind that social media is not something you can just set and forget. You do need to post and engage with people regularly to get the benefit. A lull in posting or engagement can lead customers to believe your business is no longer in operation.
Aim to create shareable content that is sent to friends and family.
Content Ideas for Social Media
For most farmers, the most challenging part of social media is figuring out what to post. Here are a couple of ideas to get you started.
- Introduce the people who work on the farm. Grab a photo and write a quick description of who they are, what they do, what they love about their job, etc Share updates when you add new products to your business
- Do a video walkthrough of your fields and share what's growing and what's to come
- Share customer testimonials from happy customers
- Provide recipes for unique fruits or vegetables
- Post about your typical day – people are curious how you live and how you work
- Share videos of harvesting crops and what happens post-harvest
Join community groups too, and start building connections with local businesses, which will help you foster relationships that might become mutually beneficial in the future.
Use email to keep customers up to date. An easy way to do this is through a "catalog schedule" email, which sends out weekly updates of new products or products coming back in stock.
You can also use email to highlight obscure or unknown products to create demand. Share recipes using the ingredient and show how to prepare and eat them to create curiosity around the new product.
Most farms will have two types of emails in their strategy: marketing emails and relationship/loyalty building emails.
Marketing emails will tell people about new products and aim for customers to buy something from you, while relationship-building emails will add value. Think of these as the soft sell; offer a discount, provide interesting information, or share news about your farm and family. These emails help your customers to feel closer to you.
Mailchimp and Constant Contact are email platforms that are free or low cost, and provide a lot of tools to users.
Excellent Online Customer Service = Loyal Customers
Even your online customers deserve excellent customer service. The customer service we receive plays a huge role in shaping our perception of the business.
If a mistake happens, fix it quickly and ensure your customer has a great experience regardless of the error. How you resolve issues will help you to stand apart from other businesses.
Have a clear policy that outlines what your employees should do in a particular scenario and how to communicate with customers during a complaint. This ensures your customers experience consistent customer service.
Keep all communication personable and empathetic. Most customers will empathize with you, but be prepared to empathize with customers who overreact. No one likes hearing complaints, but negative feedback allows you to fix issues in your business that you may not have noticed otherwise.
Prevent communication issues by making sure information is clear and visible for customers. For example, suppose you only do deliveries on the weekend. In that case, you need to make sure that it is clear and presented to the customer before they enter their payment information.
Anticipate what may cause customer service options and reduce the likelihood of blindsiding customers with this information after buying the product.
Common Online Sales Issues
Failure to Launch
Some people don't launch their online store because they are too busy or worried about things. However, your website will save you lots of time in the long run; you just need to launch it.
Not Driving Traffic
Another common mistake is people making their website and just expecting people to find it without putting in any work. You need to promote your website. Start with Google My Business, social media, and letting regular, in-person customers know that you have a website.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do co-op models work?
A group of local businesses get together (5 seems to work well) to offer complementary products to their customers. They share delivery and marketing costs as well as the profits. It is beneficial for the customers to get their products all in one place, and each business is exposing the other companies to their customer pool.
What is the difference between a website and an online store?
We recommend an online store, as that is where you sell your product. However, it does not necessarily need a website attached. Many people have an e-commerce component to their website. In contrast, others use social media to create connections and engagement and have an online store to purchase the product.
Should I charge for delivery?
Absolutely, because it costs you money to do and the margin for produce is already relatively low. However, if you charge for delivery, offer free pick-up options as well.
Should I display a QR code on my farmer's market stall?
QR codes are a quick and easy way for customers to scan the code and connect with your website and social media right away. We have also seen cards with website information that is included in packaging. Do what works best for your business.
What referral rewards programs would you suggest?
Several people offer store credit or give discount codes to their customers in exchange for referrals. However, these may not be suitable if you have many customers to keep track of. You may need to adopt a more formal program that is easier to track as you grow.