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  • Katie Olthoff

Scaling Up through E-commerce

By Katie Olthoff


The year 2020 witnessed a boom in local meat sales, and since that time, state and federal government funding has increased to support farmers and small meat processors involved in producing local meat.  Coinciding with this trend was an astonishing rise in the number of people opting for online food purchases, including perishable foods like fruits, vegetables and meat.  These two trends combined have many farmers moving toward online sales of their meat. 


Over the past 3 years, ChopLocal has worked with more than 60 of those farmers, helping them navigate the necessary technology and marketing strategies to thrive in the world of e-commerce. Some of these farms are adopting a localized approach, using online platforms for customer pre-orders for farmers markets or on-farm pick-up. Other farms are expanding their customer base geographically, shipping their meat to customers across the state or region.


Regardless of the fulfillment model, an online store can be a valuable way for customers to connect with farmers, especially when face-to-face interaction isn’t feasible. The store can also let customers know what you have in stock and allow them to reserve their orders conveniently and based on their schedules.


However, prior to launching an online store, there are some important considerations, including technology, workflows, and expected results.


Impact of an Online Store

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that more people are buying online, but before launching a new marketing or sales channel, you must ensure that the business move will work for you and your farm.


In 2022, ChopLocal surveyed hundreds of livestock farms and small butcher shops about their online meat sales to determine whether or not e-commerce is a viable sales channel. The survey, which was conducted between May and August of 2022, showed that livestock farmers with an e-commerce store sold 62% more meat (by dollar value) than their counterparts without. )It’s important to note that we cannot pinpoint the cause of the increase in sales. It is possible that an online store increased the sales for these farms, or it is possible that farms selling more are more likely to launch an online store to serve their customers.)  Either way, it seems the online store is an important component of the business model, with respondents reporting that, on average, 43% of their total sales happen online.


Suitability of an Online Store

Acknowledging that an online store isn't universally applicable to all farms and farmers is important. How do you know if your farm needs an online store?


Do you have “offline” customers?

Although an online store can be associated with higher sales, it’s really hard for farmers to build up a customer base through online-only sales. Part of the appeal of farm-direct foods is that the customer gets to develop a relationship with their farmer, and that is harder to do online than offline. Establishing an offline customer base first is wise; those offline customers may become your first online customers and may share your store with their friends and family.


Do you have a proven product with positive reviews?

Before moving to online sales, test out your product with customers and get feedback. Does your produce meet their expectations for size and flavor? Does your meat provide a quality eating experience every time? Investing in an online store with a new, unproven product can be risky.


Do you have the necessary partners in place?

In the case of meat, do you have a good relationship with a processor that you like? If not, launching an online store might be a premature move. Ensure you feel confident with your processor’s services and value-added products before expanding to online sales.


Do you check your email regularly and on the go?

Can you respond quickly to customer questions? Online shoppers expect a quick response. A delayed response can cause them to second guess their purchase or find another source for their products.


Can you dedicate the time needed for inventory management?

Most online platforms allow you to keep track of your inventory. If you sell meat, you may only have a few of each cut, and you’ll need to make sure you don’t “sell” something that is actually out of stock. Inventory management is important to prevent chargebacks and customer frustration.


Do you have a backup fulfillment plan for vacation or illness?

Most farmers don’t take many vacations, but how will you handle it if you’re away and can’t fulfill your orders? Can you turn off your store temporarily or post a message that says that you’ll fulfill orders when you return?


What would your online sales total need to be for it to be worth it?

Last but certainly not least, think about your expected return on investment for your online store. Setting up a store will require time and/or money, and many platforms have a monthly fee. How much will you need to sell online in order to make it worth it? How quickly do you want to reach your sales goals? How will you measure your success online? Consider talking to similar farms selling online to find out their sales volume.


Optimizing your Online Store

Choosing the right technology and setting your store up for success can be overwhelming. Keep these things in mind to maximize your sales and minimize frustration:


  • Look for a customer-friendly platform. Some software programs are designed to be simple for the farmer but are more difficult for the customer to manage. Some offer specific purchasing options (CSA, sell by exact weight, etc.) but online customers may need clarification on these options. Look for a platform that’s farmer-friendly and easily navigable by customers.

  • Share the order fulfillment information upfront. Do not wait until the checkout page to tell your prospective customer how much shipping will be or where their pick-up options are located. Use a platform that allows you to share the information earlier in the buying process and several places throughout the site.

  • Use enticing photos. Some people disagree with the idea of stock photography, but as long as the products in the photos look similar to your products, it’s okay to use stock photos. If you’d rather use photos of your products, hire a photographer or improve your photography skills so your images are appealing. If you are selling food, your photos should highlight the quality of your products and make the customer’s mouth water.

  • Educate and inspire the customer. Weak, limited product descriptions are one of the biggest mistakes made by farmers online. Take the time to write detailed descriptions, especially detailing the amount of product the customer will receive and how it will be packaged. You can also share recipes, storage tips and other pertinent product information. Consider the questions that customers ask when you’re face to face and include the answers to those questions in your product descriptions or blog.

  • Pair your online store with your online presence. As your customers get used to your online store, you’ll need to repeatedly push them there through your social media channels and email newsletter. Use direct links to featured products and clear calls to action, and don’t be afraid to be repetitive on social media to remind them how easy it is to order online.

  • Share your farm’s story and value proposition. Customers want to feel confident in their food purchases, and transparency about your farm’s production practices can build trust with the consumer. Share photos of the farm and your family or the employees to help increase the emotional connection between your farm and potential customers.


More Resources

Launching, maintaining and growing an online store can be an intimidating process, but it can also be rewarding and profitable. If you’re considering an online store or want to increase your digital marketing efforts, visit sell.choplocal.com for webinars and blog posts with more related information. Funding for these educational resources was made possible by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service through grant AM22FMPPIA1096. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the USDA.


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About ChopLocal:

ChopLocal is an online farmer’s market specifically for meat, featuring dozens of farms and butcher shops nationwide. The company also provides educational resources for farms selling direct-to-consumer at sell.choplocal.com.

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