Building a food based ecommerce business

Where I live in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, we make great produce and wine. The local market is only so big. So to make money you need to get your goods into supermarkets. This can be easier said than done, especially for a small company starting out. There are a few great Hawke’s Bay farmer’s markets. Markets are great for getting your product in front of consumers. But they are usually only on weekend mornings. It would be great to have an outlet that is open 24/7. So why not create an ecommerce store for your food or beverage product.

Before you rush into selling food or beverages online you should know a few things.

Selling food and beverages online can be difficult. If you are selling alcohol then there are legal requirements to adhere to. If you are selling a fresh product you need to worry about packaging and delivery times. There are many ecommerce platforms to choose from. Choosing the best one for your business can be difficult. You’ll also need to learn how to market your ecommerce store. Here are some tips on creating a successful online food and/or beverage business.

Setting up your site.

Choose a good ecommerce platform that can grow with your business.

There are many great ecommerce solutions out there. They range from free open source solutions to expensive hosted platforms. Some good hosted ones are 3dcart, Shopify, Volusion and BigCommerce. Some open source solutions are WooCommerce, Magento Community version and X-Cart. It’s no secret that I use and recommend WooCommerce. For small stores just starting out the initial investment is low. WordPress and the WooCommerce plugin that turns WordPress into an online store is free too. WooCommerce can be extended with add-on plugins that can add all kinds of functionality to your site. So WooCommerce can grow with your online food business.

Good Photos.

It is said that people eat with their eyes. So you need to make the images of your products look as great as they taste. I have written another post about taking great photos for ecommerce websites. If you don’t have much success with taking your own photos then look into getting a professional photographer to take them. I can’t stress the importance of good photos enough. Especially if you are selling something that is supposed to be delicious. It should look delicious online too.

Good copy on website.

It has been proven that good website copy will convince people to buy. Good copy on the home page, about page and product descriptions are essential. As are CTA’s (Call To Action). If you are struggling then consider hiring a professional copywriter to write the content.

Offer something convenient.

Some of the most successful online food businesses are the ones that offer something convenient. Nadia Lim turned her Master Chef NZ success into a great online food business called My Food Bag. She offers a convenient,  service that delivers healthy food and recipes to your door. People hate having to think about what to cook for dinner, so they will pay for a service that makes it easy for them.

There are other services that will send you a regular package of alcohol. Wine & beer clubs will send subscribers a mixed 6 or 12 bottles of wine every few months. People get to try new interesting new drinks that they might not have come across normally.

If you ship fresh goods make sure your product ships in a timely fashion.

Your goods need to get to your customers in top condition. Know your production schedule. Get fresh product to customers but without making too much and wasting items that will perish. This can wipe out your profit.

Ramp up for holidays and other times when you will see increased demand.

If your produce is perishable you will need the right packaging. Polystyrene boxes and cooler pads can cost more so you will need to work the cost into the price of your products.

Weekend and rural delivery are something else to consider. Make friends with your delivery company and know their delivery process inside and out. It might be better to hold back sending a product for a day rather than let it sit in a hot warehouse for a weekend.

Marketing your site.

Grouped products and personalised recommendations.

Grouped products are a great way to let customers know which of your products go well together. Hampers are a great example. You can create fixed price product bundles. Then let customers choose a bundle of certain products at a discount. Another great idea is offering complementary products when users add something to their cart. For example you can offer a discounted bottle of hot sauce when someone buys chicken wings.

Once a customer has made a few purchases from your online food store you can start to recommend products they may like. If the like a certain brand of wine then you can recommend another one they might like based on their tastes. This is also know as cross-selling.

Most ecommerce platforms have add-ons and plugins that allow product bundles and make it easy to cross-sell products.


Content Marketing.

If you make great food or drink then tell people all about it. If you are stuck from ideas just start blogging recipes that use your produce. If you sell alcohol then blog about cocktail recipes. If you sell beer online then tell people which of your beers goes best with which types of food.

There is no end to the subjects your could blog about. For inspiration check out Gary Vaynerchuck’s website. Gary took his family’s wine store from $3M to $60M annual turnover. Mostly by using social media well.

If you are up to it then video is a great way to get in front of potential customers. Make short videos about recipes. Or do a short tour of your factory. Go through the lifecycle of your product from farm to table. It might seem mundane to you but people are interested in food and where it comes from. Most people who drink wine would love to see what happens in a vintage. Beer drinkers would love to see their favourite beer being brewed.

Grow an email list.

Keep customer coming back by keeping in touch with them. An email list is one of the greatest marketing tools. Email newsletters are much more likely to get clicks than other forms of online marketing.

You can use some of the content you create for your content marketing in the newsletter. You can also create some newsletter only content. For example My Food Bag sends weekly recipes.

If your store has the ability to create accounts then use the registration form the get as much info about users as you can. Then you can personalise your email marketing. Send someone an email on their birthday wishing them a happy day and offer them a small discount. This is a fantastic way to get sales. As is sending out email reminding people of special occasions. Send out an email reminding people that Valentine’s Day is coming up and offer a discount on champagne. remind people to buy a ham at Christmas time.

Social media.

Social media is one of the best marketing channels when used correctly. Some of the mistakes people make are:

Asking for the sale right away. No one will buy from you straight of the bat. It seems pushy when you just post adverts online. You need to build a following and offer people value before you go for the hard sell. Again Gary Vaynerchuck is full of great advice on how to sell on social media. His book JAB, JAB, JAB, RIGHT HOOK: HOW TO TELL YOUR STORY IN A NOISY SOCIAL WORLD is full of marketing nuggets you can apply to your business. Again, you can use content you created for your blog and repurpose it for social media.

Not posting consistently. Even if you don’t have anything to say, say something. For example you could congratulate New Zealand’s rugby team, the All Blacks, on their latest win. Post a link to something interesting you found online. Mix in some of your own personal posts and links with the more formal value / salesy posts. If you seem like a real person then others are more likely to follow and engage with you.

Not using the right social media channels or trying to use all of them. By all means try out all the forms of social media. But you’ll probably want to focus on just one or two. Without a marketing team it can be difficult and time consuming to cover all the bases. Focus on the right form of social media for your online food business. For example if you make beautiful cakes then that is a visual product. So try Instagram for posting photos of your awesome cakes. For a product that occupies a certain health niche you can create a FaceBook group. People can share their experiences and diet tips.

Social media is also a good way to answer questions about your product. If people love your products then they will quite often write about their experience on social media.

Reviews and testimonials.

To get people to buy from your online food or beverage store you need to get the trust of your audience. Getting reviews and testimonials from happy customers is a great way to get trust. WooCommerce has a review systems built in, as do many other ecommerce platforms. When people research products online they often read the reviews posted by people that have already purchased.

Consider offering free shipping.

Increasingly ecommerce stores are offering free shipping. New Zealand can be a tough one when it comes to shipping. It usually costs more to send a package between the two main islands. And then there is rural delivery to think about. To recoup costs, consider an order minimum and then markup accordingly. Or you could have free shipping on purchases over a certain price.

When things go wrong make them right.

Running an food ecommerce business is tough. And things might not always run smoothly. But the difference between good service and bad service is how businesses handle complaints. Your strongest advocates can be the customers who have had problems with your service that you have won over  by putting the problem right. For example if someone gets sent the wrong product, send them the correct product. Then let them keep the one they were sent by mistake. Sure it costs your business money but an unhappy customer can potentially cost much more. Whereas if you have fixed the mistake, apologised and given them really good service they will probably rave about the experience.


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