When he launched his farm’s online store last April, Jason Coopey wasn’t expecting much. He simply wanted Way Fruit Farm to be ready when customers were ready to do a lot of food shopping online.
In the new world of COVID-19, that time is now.
The farm in Port Matilda, Pennsylvania, had been filling a handful of orders per day. But that has jumped to almost 40 on some days since Gov. Tom Wolf has imposed increasingly serious measures to slow the spread of the new coronavirus by keeping people at home.
Coopey and others who sell local food online talked in a March 23 Penn State webinar about how they’re handling the sudden demand for grocery delivery.
The transition to online sales has been particularly abrupt for Heather Thomason.
“We did not have a live online store last week,” she said.
The owner of Primal Supply Meats, a Philadelphia butchery, Thomason buys six whole beef cattle, 10 hogs and 100-plus chickens a week from a network of farmers in the region.
She was planning to launch her online platform in May — and not venture into home delivery till pickup orders were going well — before COVID-19 turned her marketing model on its head.
The city’s restaurants were ordered closed, which knocked out 40% of her business overnight.
At the same time, she found her retail locations in Brewerytown and South Philly inundated with food shoppers discouraged by the denuded shelves at the supermarket. Primal Supply broke its single-day sales record set just before Christmas.
Though she was relieved to be offsetting her lost restaurant sales, Thomason feared she was putting her staff at risk of illness by keeping her butcher shops open.
So she convinced her husband, a web developer, to speed up the coding and launch the online store within three days.
In the first few days of online sales, Primal Supply’s staff packed 60, 85 and 130 orders, smashing Thomason’s pre-pandemic expectations.
“It’s bananas,” she said.
Choose Your Service
One of the biggest steps toward starting online sales is picking the right platform.
Carissa Itle Westrick looked for a service that would be reasonably priced for managing her farm’s thousands of existing delivery customers. Her Vale Wood Farms in Loretto has been delivering milk in the Altoona-Johnstown-Indiana area for years, and online ordering promised to improve management of that marketing channel.
Westrick chose bMobile Route Software. It was more reasonably priced than other options, but the platform has been somewhat challenging to learn, she said.
The software is located on the farm’s server, not in the cloud. Given the iffy internet service in the farm’s rural area, people may sometimes have trouble placing an order, Westrick said, but that risk was more acceptable than intermittently losing access to customer information.
Thomason uses the online platform GrazeCart, which one of her farmer suppliers recommended.
As a meat seller, Thomason needed a platform that would allow variable pricing for an item. Not every rib-eye steak weighs the same.
When placing the order, the customer sees an estimated price based on the cuts’ average weight. Primal Supply bills based on the true weight once the items have been picked from inventory.
GrazeCart costs Thomason $200 a month for up to 400 transactions, with custom pricing above that.
Thomason had expected she’d stay well within the base pricing level. With the recent blitz of orders, there’s no chance.
Coopey pays $75 a month for Big Commerce, a cloud-based platform that allows him to manage delivery by ZIP code.
Items are priced the same in store and online, though staff have to update prices in both systems.
One might assume that online sales would cannibalize in-store spending, but Coopey said that’s not the case.
Through analytics, he’s found that many customers browse the web store and then visit the farm to purchase.
Coopey’s physical location carries about 2,000 products — homegrown apples and peaches, of course, but also local meats, cheeses, baked goods and candy.
About 1,400 of those products are available online. If something is sold out, Coopey simply hides it on the website till he gets more in.
Entering all of the products in the web platform was not as easy as it seemed.
One employee thought it would take three or four days. “And it was three or four weeks later till we had it all — pictures taken, uploaded all the pricing,” Coopey said.
Delivering the Goods
Prior to the pandemic, Coopey said he wasn’t making money on delivery, but he wasn’t losing much either.
With the jump in orders, the delivery business is definitely in the black.
Coopey doesn’t require a minimum purchase for delivery, but he does charge a $4.99 flat fee, which roughly covers the cost of the delivery.
One person recently paid for delivery on a single $6 gallon of cider, but most orders are over $60.
“For a lot of the people who are ordering online, the orders are quite big,” Coopey said.
The farm processes the orders as they come in, and those submitted by 2 p.m. are delivered the same day within a 40-minute drive of the farm.
In the past few weeks, the farm has been averaging more than 20 orders a day.
At Primal Supply, orders have become a major operation. Because of the labor involved, Thomason has set a minimum spend of $20 for pickup and $50 for delivery. Delivery also carries a $15 fee.
Customers can provide instructions for where to leave the order — on a porch, in a cooler, with the doorman — but with so many people staying home at the moment, the driver often just has to ring the doorbell.
“It’s actually weirdly easy to implement home delivery right now,” Thomason said.
Despite being in a rural area an hour from some of its customers, Vale Wood does not charge a delivery fee or require a minimum purchase.
The goal is to build a relationship and turn people into regular customers with standing orders, Westrick said.
Unlike the daily delivery services at Way Fruit Farm, Primal Supply or Amazon, Vale Wood drops off at its customers only once a week.
Devising routes is one of the most challenging parts of the farm’s delivery system.
“Our routes are like trying to keep an amoeba inside a fence,” Westrick said.
Vale Wood, like Primal Supply, uses Google Maps to draw up routes.
Westrick was an economics major in college, so she enjoys analyzing the profitability of the routes. If one is falling short, she mentions it to her uncle, the route manager, so he can develop sales goals for the area.
And if her drivers are running ahead of schedule, Westrick encourages them to park the truck for a bit so that people can see that the farm delivers to their neighborhood.
“That truck is essentially a billboard, a moving billboard, for our dairy,” Westrick said.
Because these local businesses use different suppliers than grocery stores do, they have been able to keep items in stock that may be sold out at the supermarket.
“We exist in a completely local supply chain, and our farmers have animals on the ground. Our processor is still processing. There is no way that my meat supply is drying up any time soon,” Thomason said.
She has also seen a giant increase in demand for the supplemental food items — milk, mushrooms, potatoes — she has always kept as a sideline at the shops.
Thomason has been surprised by customers’ response to her fledgling delivery business. People are wording their delivery notes very politely and thanking her for just offering the service.
“Everyone is unusually accepting of mistakes that we’re making as we’re doing this, which I don’t think would be typical if we had marketed and rolled this out in a traditional fashion,” she said.
The big question is whether customers will keep buying online once the pandemic restrictions have ended.
Thomason expects delivery will settle in as a small piece of her sales. That revenue will be good to have, though, because her restaurant business may take some time to pick back up — and some customers might not reopen at all.
In the meantime, Thomason is contemplating what will happen to her delivery numbers if widespread shutdowns continue for several more weeks and a growing number of people miss paychecks.
Over the long term, Coopey still believes online sales will be good for his farm.
“I have faith in it that, as time goes on, that is where the growth is going to be,” he said.