How to build an ecommerce business that sells food

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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 Burke, 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.

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