Investing in the Future of Food: DTC online sales help brands meet consumer demand, build loyalty

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags ecommerce Online grocery

As wait times for delivery windows from traditional grocery retail ecommerce sites stretch further into the future, Americans increasingly are buying products directly from manufacturers’ websites during the coronavirus pandemic, creating an opportunity for brands to boost sales and consumer loyalty.

Brands that don’t already sell direct-to-consumer on their website can quickly add an ecommerce component, but it won’t be easy, warns Meryl Kennedy, the CEO of the organic rice company 4Sisters, which recently launch its online shopping platform after just two weeks and two days.

Kennedy, who also co-founded the company with her three sisters, explains in this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Investing in the Future of Food​ what it takes to rapidly launch an online store, including what factors entrepreneurs must consider, where they may need to compromise and where they shouldn’t.

Online sales help meet spiking demand

Since the coronavirus pandemic was declared, how and when consumers grocery shop has changed dramatically, and placed a greater emphasis on ecommerce. But as illustrated by headlines of traditional retailers restricting when consumers can schedule deliveries or having too few options available, buying online from large banners isn’t an option for everyone.

At the same time, not everyone has access to a grocery store or someone who can pick up what they need for them, which is why Kennedy said 4Sisters decided to add an ecommerce platform.

“The demand is just extraordinary right now, and we are seeing some lag in supply chain, and so we wanted to be able to make sure people can buy the products they need to buy and stock their pantries with shelf stable products, like rice, so we though launching an ecommerce site was the right thing to do during this crisis,”​ she said.

She added it also will provider longer-term benefit to consumers in urban areas who don’t have cars and don’t want to carry a heavy bag of rice, or consumers in rural areas that might not have easy access to brick and mortar stores.

‘It is not necessarily an easy process’

While 4Sisters was able to prop up its ecommerce website in just over two weeks, Kennedy acknowledged it was “not necessarily an easy process.”

In addition to being patient, she recommends that entrepreneurs looking to launch ecommerce sites first carefully vet the software platforms to understand what is available, what isn’t and where they might need to make compromises accordingly.

When selecting a platform, Kennedy advises entrepreneurs to consider their brands’ existing capabilities, needs and whether a platform can deliver a fully functional experience. This includes ensuring that platforms can connect with brands’ existing websites, that they can easily reconcile accounting, inventory and privacy concerns.

Just as important as creating a fully functional back-end, is creating a front-end experience that is user friendly, Kennedy said.

“We wanted to make sure that when people enter this site that they really felt like they open the door to a beautiful shop, so they feel welcome and comfortable and able to find our products easily,”​ she said.

Part of this is trial and error as back-end analytics reveal how many people visit versus purchase products, how long it takes them to select items to buy and other key pieces of information.

Finally, Kennedy advises entrepreneurs to ensure they have a viable shipping strategy in place before they start taking orders.

“Make sure that you’re prepared on a shipping standpoint – that you have some really good relationships with FedEx, UPS or USPS, because right now they are under a lot of stress as well,”​ Kennedy said.

She also recommends that brands build shipping costs into their product offerings so that consumers are not deterred by shipping expenses. 4Sisters was able to do this by creating bundles of products with a high enough margin to justify covering “free shipping” for consumers.

Continue to support brick and mortar retailers

Even as 4Sisters builds up its own ecommerce option, Kennedy was quick to point out that it is not abandoning its retail partners.

“They have been wonderful partners to us and we want to support them 100%. They are doing a phenomenal job out there. It is just remarkable seeing the tremendous effort that they are putting into get people the products that they want and to restock the shelves,”​ so we will continue to support them, she said.

She also urged entrepreneurs of emerging brands that are struggling to gain retailers’ attention during the pandemic not to give up – noting that many are still partnering with new companies and that they will do that even more in the future once they have fully adjusted to the “new normal.”

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