Small Business Ecommerce: How to Sell Food Online - Page 2

By Jennifer Schiff
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Small Business Ecommerce: Spreading the Word

Even if you have the best-tasting brownie or cheeses, if no one knows about you, you’ll soon go out of business. So get the word out. And one of the best, most cost-effective ways to do that is to use social media, i.e., Facebook and Twitter (and Foursquare, if you also have a physical storefront).

“I’ve gotten more sales from grade school, high school and college friends I’ve reconnected with on Facebook,” said Jones, who is constantly posting pictures of what she is baking that day on her personal and business Facebook pages.

Another good way to spread the word is sending customers email newsletters telling them about new products or specials (and including discount codes). Email services such as Constant Contact, Mad Mimi, and Campaigner make it simple -- and even provide sign-up widgets you can add to your website and/or Facebook page to collect email addresses.

Also consider reaching out to local nonprofits and offering to provide your goods for free at big fundraising functions, where hundreds of people can sample your treats. That worked for Jones, who also had success forming her own business networking group via BNI.

And don’t forget about Google AdWords which, said Frieze, has really helped drive traffic to Venissimo Cheese’s website.

Final Thought for Foods

When setting up shop online, “start small and stay simple,” said Frieze. “Pick maybe five products to start with. Then experiment with new products.” Take the time to get it right, she emphasized. And be patient, with yourself and your customers. Establishing a great food site takes time.

How to sell food online; small business ecommerce
These attractive images on the Venissimo Cheese website are anything but cheesy.

Ecommerce Side Dish: 5 Questions to Ask Before Selling Food Online

“The foods that sell best [online] are ones that you can’t get within driving distance of wherever you live, or they’re something you can’t make yourself,” explained Venissimo Cheese’s Frieze. “You have to offer something unique and different,” added Peanut Butter &Co.’s Zalben, who suggested prospective online food sellers ask themselves the following five questions before opening an online food store.

  • Is the product temperature sensitive? “If it is, that could be an obstacle,” he said.
  • Can the product be packaged in a way that’s easy and safe to ship? If it can’t be, you may want to think twice, as the cost could be prohibitive.
  • Is this something that people can easily buy someplace else (like their local grocery or specialty food store)? Before you sell something online, be sure to check out the competition and determine what extra value you add.
  • Is the presentation or the assortment or the product unique in some way? “If not, it’s a problem,” he said.
  • What kind of shelf life does the product have? “If it’s something fresh that has to be prepared every day and then shipped in one or two days, then that could be an obstacle,” said Zalben.

Selling Food on Amazon

In addition to selling food on their own website, many small businesses sell their products on online food marketplaces, such as Amazon.com (which has a rapidly growing Grocery & Gourmet Food department) and Direct Eats. To find out more about these online food markets, Small Business Computing spoke with Stephen Scheffler, the president and owner of KS Specialties, which helps small businesses promote and grow their brand on Amazon.

“Almost all food companies can benefit from being on Amazon,” said Scheffler. “Amazon allows you to reach a very large audience and gives you national distribution, instantaneously.” Also, as a part of Amazon, your business can take advantage of Amazon’s marketing (such as the Affiliates program) as well as promotional opportunities -- at a cost far less than traditional marketing and advertising. Amazon can even handle fulfillment and shipping.

"Selling on Amazon.com has really helped Great River Organic Milling reach those customers that want our products but don't have them available in their location,” said Rick Halverson, the president of Great River Organic Milling (who works with KS Specialties). Amazon “helped us expand our market presence at a cost that is affordable for most small businesses. And the growth of our brand in the market has been exponential thanks to [Amazon],” he added.

But what about risks? “There’s very little risk working with Amazon,” said Scheffler. “People worry that if they sell on Amazon, they’ll have to lower their prices, but we haven’t seen that at all,” he said. People also worry about having to maintain a certain inventory level on Amazon, but Scheffler said that’s also not an issue. Unlike a physical grocery store, Amazon doesn’t need to worry about filling holes on shelves. Moreover, “out of stocks and shortages are built into the system.”

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a regular contributor to Small Business Computing and runs a marketing communications firm focused on helping small and mid-sized businesses.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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This article was originally published on February 16, 2011
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