Free digital copy
Get Speciality Food magazine delivered to your inbox FREEGet your free copy
Independent retailers have shown their creativity and resilience this summer by rapidly pivoting to online trading. Forced to close bricks-and-mortar outlets by Covid-19, they’ve quickly set up websites and established delivery networks from scratch. However, translating the in-store experience to an online platform brings a unique set of challenges. We asked the people who’ve successfully made the transition to share their hard-earned expertise.
Constantly update your website
Nick McCulloch is CEO of Provenance Hub, a curated collection of provenance assured products spanning food, drink, bath, home and lifestyle. He emphasises the importance of ensuring a website is a constantly evolving space: “if you’re wanting to mimic the in-store experience then you need to realise that your website is never done,” he explains. “The number of people who will go and find an external party to build them an eCommerce site and then think all they have to do is add and remove products and change pricing… no, it’s a living breathing entity that encompasses your brand and what you do.
“It needs to continue to tell a story; there is nothing worse from a consumer perspective than arriving on a site that’s exactly the same as last month, that’s not highlighting anything, not featuring anything. Shelves in your shop cost you money, products that sit there unsold cost you money, so there need to be calls to action in place for people to buy something or you’re wasting your time.”
Bring products to life for consumers
Communicating the flavour of a product is more challenging when customers are not able to try a sample in-store. Emily-Jane Smith Cummins is brand communications manager at Wensleydale Creamery, based in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Prior to lockdown, the creamery’s online presence was focused on gifting, but they quickly decided to move their whole offering to the website. “We put everything online in the space of 48 hours,” she explains. “It was a big task because obviously you have to get your nutritionals online, your allergens, your ingredients, photos, stock… and some of the producers we stock are very small so we had to shoot photos for them - it was a big task but it seems to have paid off.
“We had cookery demonstrations on our social media pages during lockdown to show people how to use our cheese in different dishes; it’s just engaging people on another level. Lifestyle photography can really help - even though it’s expensive - you get some key shots of bestsellers you can use on your website, on social, on your email, and they’re more enticing than a photo taken on your mobile phone.”
McCullock agrees: “it’s about different types of content, it’s tasting notes, it’s experiences; if you can’t share a tasting experience in-store then you need to be building it in a different way, through articles, through different products. The merchandising is as important as the store itself.”
Build your brand through social media and newsletters
Mark Kacary is managing director of The Norfolk Deli, which curates and sells products from all around the county. He’s a firm believer in the power of social media for driving traffic to a website. “There are far too many small businesses who make a token effort at social media,” he says. “Instagram and Facebook are very simple tools to use and you just have to remember to post something at the very least daily.
“The secret is to let people in: that’s the difference between a small business and a brand like, say, Unilever. If Unilever posts a pic trying to say “look we are real people” then not many customers will believe that. However, if you’re Norfolk Deli, you have three dogs and you take pictures when you walk them on a beach as the sun rises you’ll get 100+ likes, at least. People will follow you just for that and then they start seeing everything else. Before you know it they will buy something.”
The team behind the Daylesford Organic brand agree. “On social media, you already have an audience who know and like your brand, so maintaining a regular presence there is key. We post daily, with diverse content including shoppable posts, video clips on IGTV, stories as well as grid posts. We recently hosted a Virtual Summer Festival in place of our usual event at the farm, with a week-long schedule including yoga classes, cookery demonstrations, even a dog show.”
Newsletters are important, too, provided they’re not sent too often, explains Smith-Cummins. “I think it’s nice when you can provide customers with an incentive to join the newsletter. So, for example, we had a pop up where people enter their details and they are put into our email database to win a hamper on a quarterly basis. You’re getting data back and that’s the most important thing. But it’s also important not to send newsletters too often; we probably did it once a month before but now we do it once a week as we are adding new products every day. I’d say if you’re just starting off, once a fortnight or once a month is probably enough.”
Personalise and refine your brand
Kacary urges new online retailers to remember the foundations of selling when it comes to branding. “For a business to develop a brand that business has to go back to simple sales basics,” he says. “Identify a USP - why do customers shop with that business? Focus on that! A brand needs to be associated with that USP otherwise it’s just another deli.”
Then it’s time to build and refine your brand by personalising it. “People buy from people, and brands with personality are more engaging,” explains Smith Cummins. “People like behind-the-scenes content so we’re always championing our farmers, our cheesemakers and our staff - it really works, showcasing people.”
McCulloch agrees. “The reason we have the Norfolk’s Online Farmer’s Market, what makes us different from a supermarket, is that the products we sell are made by people we know, and as a result of us meeting them, talking to them on a regular basis we’re able to pass on details about the products to the customer. No one can say anything about Mr Kipling.”
Once you’ve established your USP, it’s important to reinforce core brand values at every turn, explains Smith Cummins. “Our core values are quality, heritage and authenticity, so we try to communicate those on every page of our website and on social media.’
Spend time on tech
“Website design is very important,” says Smith Cummins. “it has to be attractive and user friendly, and you need to make it easy for people to check out swiftly if they see a product they like - don’t put any roadblocks in place, because the attention span of someone online is very short. Content needs to be engaging, the more time a customer spends on-site, the more likely they are to buy.”
“I would say it needs to be easy to use, with plenty of white space,” says McCulloch. “Users come from multiple browsers using multiple devices, all of which deliver a slightly different experience. Signposting them is key, not only where they are but where you are wanting them to go and what you want them to do. Understanding the customer route after they land on your site is crucial.”
At Daylesford Organic, they emphasise the work and financial investment necessary to establish a successful website. “Don’t be under any illusions that online is that much less expensive than maintaining a brick-and-mortar store. It’s not just about the front end – where you need to be easily discovered by customers, have a beautifully merchandised offer and a seamless customer journey - it’s about the customer journey from the moment your customer checks out until the moment they receive their order. This is even more of a challenge with perishable goods. It’s important to go into it with your eyes open.’
Utilise Google Analytics
There are plenty of great tools out there, which help you look at how your customer interacts with your site, which pages they engage with or where they’re leaving the site for example. All these things help you better craft the journey to serve them exactly what they’re looking for as quickly and simply as possible.
Google Analytics is one of the best and most widely used tools for following the customer on-site journey and gathering information. “We use Google Analytics to understand the demographic of our audience and their location and we then tie that back into our content,” says McCulloch. “It lets us see where we are doing well and where we need to invest.”
Smith Cummins agrees. “You need to think about the demographics, if your visitors are young you can have faster, quicker content but if they’re older you need an easy to read, easy to use website.”
Stay connected and receive the latest news, analysis and insights from our industry's top commentators