Direct markets weighing ecommerce options amid the COVID pandemic and moving forward
When Sarah Hamilton, owner of New Roots Farm at Canon City, wanted to start an online store, she turned to a comprehensive report from the National Young Farmers Coalition to help sort through the options.
“I wanted something free or really low cost, because I didn’t anticipate it being a huge part of our sales,” she said during the annual Oklahoma Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference earlier this year. “But I’ve learned there really is a place for online sales in our day and age.”
It’s now been over a year since the first pandemic lockdowns upended the marketplace, but as analysts and researchers continue to monitor the long-term impacts to food and agriculture, one emerging consensus is that online food purchasing has accelerated and will probably remain high in the future.
That trend applies to direct-market farms as well as to large grocery chains and online sales platforms like Amazon.
Traditionally shoppers were reluctant to buy fresh produce without having the chance to see, smell or touch it first.
“Getting over that fresh barrier has been the biggest hump,” noted Jason Rumley, a market analyst with Radian, a strategic consulting firm. “Perishables have always been the hold-back, but now the day has come where consumers are starting to trust it, and that’s moving it forward compared to brick-and-mortar shopping.”
Many direct-marketers spent the winter evaluating shifts in the market and looking for ways to tweak their businesses to adapt to the changes brought about by the pandemic, said Dawn Thilmany, an economist and outreach coordinator with the Local and Regional Food Systems team at Colorado State University.
From September 2019 to September 2020, online food purchases rose sharply across all age demographics, according to Hailey Edmondson, a graduate student at CSU who was part of a panel discussion at the OFVGA conference.
Mackenzie Gill, another graduate student, said while consumers spent more time cooking at home, they also saved time by shopping online.
“They are getting a trade-off with the convenience of these new online shopping options,” she noted.
Adoption of online grocery shopping had been growing steadily, at around 2 to 3% a year, but that jumped to 10% during 2020, the CSU researchers said, as COVID “hyper-accelerated” the growth curve.
And while interest in home delivery seemed to hit a plateau early on, online shopping with curbside pick-up stayed strong and has continued to grow in popularity, according to Becca Jablonski, another economist with CSU’s Food Systems team.
The CSU researchers are contributing their research and insight to a special research hub provided by the Ag Marketing Service of USDA, which is located online at LFSCovid.localfoodeconomics.com.
The one-year project is being undertaken in partnership with economists from the University of Kentucky and with contributions from numerous partner organizations, such as the National Farm to School Network and the National Co-op Grocers Association.
The Local Food Systems Response to COVID website compiles consumer survey summaries, reports and webinars. The site also hosts its own monthly webinar series. The next one, scheduled for April 19 at 11 a.m., will focus on how to integrate national consumer survey results into future planning, with speakers from the CSU research team, the Farmers Market Coalition, the National Grocers Association and the Kahuman Organic Farm Food Hub in Hawaii.
Evaluating marketing platforms
One of countless topics covered on the site is how to choose an online marketing platform.
In Hamilton’s case, New Roots Farm owner, she went with Open Food Network simply for the low-cost and ease of use, although she said she was also trialing another program created by one of her CSA customers.
The National Young Farmers Coalition’s Farmer Guide to Direct Sale Software is one of the most popular resources for farmers who want to research their options. It covers more than a dozen different platforms designed for e-commerce, most of which specialize in farm applications.
The CSA Innovation Network in turn built on that report by doing a deeper dive, surveying and interviewing farmers directly about their experiences, including the pros and cons of the sites they chose.
In a recorded webinar available on the site, Claire Strader, a county extension educator in Wisconsin, covers their findings in greater detail.
Priorities to consider when setting up a storefront for your farm include CSA customization, home delivery and route organization options, wholesale functionality and access to different pricing structures, and the availability of print-off pick-and-pack lists and label printing, she said. Also, consider how the site looks, whether it presents well in a mobile format, and how well it integrates with existing sites, social media and email programs.
Costs vary too.
Different platforms excel at different features or product niches. For example, Graze Cart stands out as the preferred option among meat sellers. Harvie allows for extensive customization of CSA shares but charges a relatively high fee: 7 percent of sales. General platforms like SquareSpace have broad functionality that also appeals to some farmers.
New options are continually emerging. The National Young Farmers is currently developing and testing a new platform called Grown By.
“It’s very difficult to find one platform that will do everything you want. All are better at some things and not so good at others,” Strader observed. “Prioritize what you most need it to do and think not just about what you need to do today, but what you might need tomorrow. You can minimize switching platforms by thinking ahead.”
In addition to doing your homework in advance, she recommends asking the program of your choice for a trial run.
CSU’s research team has also compiled a list of entities operating around the state that work with small farms and potentially provide e-commerce solutions. The downloadable spreadsheet is posted online at FreshProduce.colostate.edu/online-sales-platforms-and-webinars.
Hamilton said overall she was pleased with her experience, even though the site she chose was simple and basic.
“I use a small number of its capabilities,” she said. “It’s not the prettiest or the most sophisticated, but it worked perfectly for allowing people to shop. I can accept credit cards or there’s the ability to pay in person.”
“There’s not a lot of space for pictures and descriptions, but I rely on my website for that,” she added.
Having an online marketing platform proved helpful when the pandemic hit, and it will now remain part of the farm’s overall strategy, along with existing CSA, farmers market and wholesale offerings, she said