5 strategies to engage with online shoppers

'Winning at shelf' is less important than 'winning at couch'

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty / Weedezign
Source: Getty / Weedezign

Related tags ecommerce plant-based

Once considered a top priority for a food or beverage brand’s success, ‘winning at shelf’ is now only “somewhat important” as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic reshapes how consumers plan and shop for groceries and how manufacturers and retailers engage with them, according to industry stakeholders.

“I think all of us are trained through the years [that] it’s all about winning at shelf and in the store,”​ but “all of that changed overnight”​ when the pandemic was declared, Harmless Harvest CEO Ben Mand said during a roundtable discussion with other plant-based brand executives and investors hosted by the PR agency JConnelly, Inc.

He explained that before the COVID-19 outbreak, new and emerging brands relied heavily on in-store demos to drive trial, while all brands used shelf tags, in-store merchandising, and in store promotions to win at shelf.

But now, he said, “there’s no longer field reps in there building big displays. … You no longer have those promotions going on. You no longer can sample.”

As a result, he said, “winning at shelf, while in the long run that is still somewhat important, what we felt became far more important is winning at couch.”

He explained winning at couch means connecting with consumers online as they order groceries for delivery or pick up, or as they draft shopping lists so that if they visit a store they can get in and out as fast as possible.

“For us, and I think all of us, what we’ve experienced is … [marketing and consumer engagement] really migrated from the shelf and all the things that you do in-store to: How do we win at couch? How do we win either the planning of the trip or the actual shopping?”​ Mand said.

Earn cart access with instant rebates, ‘surprise and delight’ campaigns

One way that the plant-based beverage grand Koia has “hacked”​ online shopping and planning is by focusing on rebate apps, like Ibotta, that consumers pre-load or Instacart, said company CEO Chris Hunter.

Another strategy was a “surprise and delight”​ campaign that Koia did with the delivery platform goPuff, in which it gave away one bottle of Koia each to 20,000 orders.

“What that did is put it in their carts as if they had ordered. It made it pop to the top when they went to reorder. What we noticed is every month since we’ve done that, our sales have doubled. It is a unique way for us to get to a customer in a unique manner and then also link it closer to sales, to the point of sale,”​ Hunter said.

Koia also partnered meal kits, which Hunter said “reemerged during this time.”​ He explained that initially the partnerships were a way to sample products but then he realized it was a new revenue channel and way to connect with consumers at home on a continual basis.

Improve online marketing, offer inspiration & solutions

Ensuring a high-quality digital marketing campaign with richer content media, including photographs, videos and recipes, is another way that the plant-based comfort food brand Alpha Foods is winning at couch, according to the company co-founder and CEO Cole Orobetz.

“A lot of digital social messaging and strategy shifted to putting together more interactive social content, such as cooking with certain chefs and influencers and how to use the Alpha products in a home setting, versus some of our previous messaging up until this point with a wide array of grab-and-go items”​ that focused on “eat-it-quick and run out of the house, which no longer [is something] people are doing,”​ he explained.

Mand echoed the value of offering consumers recipes and inspiration “because there’s a monotony to how we’re living right now, and finding new ways to cook … new routines and stuff like that is definitely something that people are searching for,”​ he said.

Rethink pricing and packaging

Products historically purchased as single-serve items or grab-and-go can still find their way to consumers’ virtual carts by repackaging them as a multi-pack or multi-serve option, said Jordan Gaspar, president and managing partner of AF Ventures.

She also advises brands that historically focused on the natural channel or more premium retailers to rethink their pricing strategies to make their products more accessible to online consumers across channels.

“It’s an important moment right now, as we think about the macroclimate and sort of recessionary climate of how do we offer these high-quality products to consumers at a price that they’re able to afford? Price strategies are top of mind for everybody here because one of the most important things we all discovered in the past five months is that the conventional channel is where huge growth came out of,”​ Gaspar said. “People were buying all of these natural products at Walmart, Target, Kroger, Publix and Costco. We need to make sure that the pricing of our products meet the expectations of those consumers so they’ll continue to [buy] those products from those locations.”

Ultimately, they all agreed that there is still significant desire by consumers to discover and engage with brands, but it is up to companies to identify new ways to do so in today's unique and evolving climate.

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