How to build an ecommerce business that sells food online

How to build an ecommerce business that sells food online

Ecommerce business owners and food marketers share 12 tips on how to create and run a successful online food business.

Selling food online is one of the most difficult ecommerce businesses to succeed at. While creating an appetizing website is in itself a challenge, ensuring that your (typically perishable) products arrive looking and tasting as delicious as they appeared on the website can be a nightmare.

[ Related: How Ecommerce Businesses Can Beat the Competition in 2015 ]

So what can an aspiring online food purveyor do to help ensure their ecommerce business doesn't go bad? Following are 12 tips from successful ecommerce food business owners and marketers.

1. Offer something that's different (or better than) what's out there. "The secret to creating and running a successful ecommerce food business is creating something new," says Nicole Bandklayder, creator, The Cookie Cups. "Do the research and find out what is already there. We know you can buy cookies online," she says. But a cookie that looks like a cupcake? Not so much. So if you want to give yourself an edge, "creating something just a little bit different can be the difference between success and failure in the fast-paced ecommerce food world."

2. Understand what it takes to make and ship your product in a timely fashion. "Know your production schedule backwards and forwards," says Stephen Hall, cofounder, Tinker Coffee. "We know exactly how much coffee we should be roasting at any given time to fulfill online orders within one business day and also keep our brick and mortar customers fully stocked," he says. "The ability to fill an order and ship it immediately (with super fresh product) is an absolute advantage in the coffee world," and for any ecommerce food-related business, where freshness is critical.

"For an ecommerce food business to succeed, it's essential to design a shipping system including speed, temperature and cost that fits your product," says Lisa Reinhardt, founder, Wei of Chocolate. "Running an organic chocolate company, we had to think outside the box regarding insulation materials," in order to keep the chocolate fresh, especially during summer. "While most companies in our niche stop shipping in the summer, we have orders year round [because of how we ship our chocolate]. In the ecommerce food industry, if you don't nail shipping, you don't have a business."

"Fulfillment and logistics for perishable products is probably the most important aspect," says Andrea Carr Fitzpatrick, who handles PR and creative development for Rastelli Market. "With restrictions on when and to where certain shipping companies deliver, it is vital to manage the expectations of your customers, giving guidelines to when orders will be shipped and should arrive," she emphasizes. "For example, FedEx doesn't deliver perishables over the weekend, so a 4-to-5-day shipping zone will only be fulfilled on Monday or Tuesday. Customers who order Wednesday in those zones will not see their order shipped until the following week unless expedited."

3. Find the right ecommerce solution for your business and abilities. This tip applies no matter what type of online business you run. Before opening shop, make sure you choose an ecommerce solution, and company, that understands your business and has easy-to-use templates and features, as well as excellent customer/technical support.

Additionally, "choose an ecommerce partner that allows your business to grow with their platform," advises Janeane Tolomeo, marketing & content manager, Di Bruno Brothers, a purveyor of gourmet food and specialty cheeses, which uses Bigcommerce. And make sure it has good reporting. "Bigcommerce provides an overall assessment of how customers are using the site and what areas [our] team should focus on."

4. Make your website a true reflection of who you are. You want your website, or Web design, to immediately convey what your company is about. "In our case, we have a sophisticated, quirky and local' look, which is easily identifiable and sets us apart from other companies," says Torie Burkey, cofounder, Torie & Howard, an ecommerce business that sells organic hard candies.

The bottom line: "find a way to set yourself apart from the crowd," she says. And if you need to, hire a Web designer who can help you to create that unique look. (Many ecommerce solution providers provide users with a list of recommended design partners who can help customize their templates.)

5. Make finding products easy. "We built our new website [using Bigcommerce] so you can explore and discover our products, just like you would in our stores," says Tolomeo, which makes it easy for customers to shop. Other ways you can make it easy for customers to shop on your site is by grouping items by category and making it easy to find those categories, as well as including a search box at the top of each page.

6. Use great photos. "Photos are the only way that customers can see your products, so make them great," says Bandklayder. "Spend the extra funds to hire a great photographer and make your products look their best." Whatever you do, though, do NOT use stock photos or photos found on a competitor's website.

"Food photography is key," agrees Carr Fitzpatrick. "An appetizing ecommerce site is vital to success. Our business more than doubled when we brought our photography in-house and [re-shot] our products with a consistent look and feel," she says. "Stock imagery does not sell because today's foodie consumer is too savvy." Rather, consumers want to see exactly what it is they are buying.

7. Make your product descriptions unique. "Every product needs a unique, memorable description," says Sara Lancaster, the chief communicator at The Condiment Marketing Company. "Not only is this useful for search engine optimization, but clever copy writing will convert sales. Include stats (e.g., weight, ingredients, type of packaging) but also describe [the] flavor," she advises. "Since your reader can't smell or taste what you're selling, which is presumably very tasty, take them there with your words."

8. Include product videos. "Record your fans tasting [your product] for the first time and describing the taste," says Lancaster. Or "do a blind taste test with your product and competing brands and video the experiment." You could also create a video montage of customers enjoying your product(s), set to mood-enhancing music. The point is, people are very visual, and "video has impact," she notes. And don't forget to share your videos on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram!

9. Include customer reviews and testimonials. "Help customers decide what to choose by having reviews of the products from other consumers [on your product pages]," says Aihui Ong, founder and CEO, Love With Food, a subscription service offering all-natural and organic snack boxes. "Studies have shown that 90 percent of buying decisions are influenced by online reviews. So having this feature will help customers feel more at ease making a purchase."

Similarly, if a customer raves about your product, on social media or via email, quote her on your website (with permission, of course).

10. Consider offering free shipping. "Just do it," says Lancaster. "When you're competing with Amazon Prime and other [big] retailers, it's imperative to offer free shipping. To recoup costs, consider an order minimum and then markup accordingly."

11. Make it easy to contact you. Include contact information a phone number and email address, not just a form on your home page and elsewhere. "Customers appreciate feeling like they can reach you if they have an issue, and it helps to establish that their concerns matter to you as a business," says Ong.

12. Finally, don't forget to market your business on social media. Food is visual. So be sure to share images of your products on Pinterest and Instagram, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. "Social media is a great platform for online food businesses," says Mark Fachler, founder & COO, Veestro, which delivers healthy, organic, plant-based meals and juices. "It's visual and provides the opportunity to share."

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