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CPMA: Increasing your online sales

By
Tad Thompson

As part of CPMA Fresh Week, an April 15 Canadian food industry panel convened online to discuss increasing online sales.

“Online grocery and food sales took the world by storm in the past year, forcing the industry to transform the way it interacts with its customers,” CPMA said in a statement. The featured panel examined “the opportunities for online growth, marketing in a virtual world and what online sales mean for the future of brick-and-mortar retail.”

Moderating the discussion was Dan Martin, chief operations officer of EarthFresh Farms.  Brian Faulkner, vice president of business development for BCfresh, directed questions to two panelists.

Discussing the explosion of online business over COVID-19’s 13-month pandemic for the Canadian retailer Longo’s was George Maia, category manager. And Cathy Tostenson, vice president, marketing and menu development for White Spot Hospitality, addressed how her restaurant chain had to swivel very quickly to accelerate online business from stores that were clearly designed for dining in.  Prior to COVID-19, 75 percent of the chain’s business was dine-in.

Tostenson said business has been “challenging” since the country shut down on March 16, 2020. No planning could have prepared any restaurant business for the last year.  She noted that it is heartbreaking that 10,000 Canadian restaurants will be closed forever because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She noted that the Sept. 11 terror attack changed global travel forever; she expects cultural shifts from COVID-19 will forever change the restaurant business: some people will no longer go out to eat.  But, at the same time, restaurants have always been a great place for people to connect, and that value should once again become an important part of our society.

As the pandemic exploded, Tostenson and her White Spot staff, working from their homes, drew the immediate decision to simplify menus and operations. The firm placed a communication program to present its food safety and service plans to guests.

The company cut no budgets to keep its brands active and atop consumer minds.  While the advertising program was maintained, its style soon changed from a previously successful humor-based theme to being more serious.

White Spot countered the loss of dine-in business by offering free delivery for several weeks.  The chain’s curbside service was very quickly modified as part of that service.  Individual stores increased its number of food packers greatly — on the order of going from two to 10 — while those workers tried to maintain social distance. Food packing found needed space in closed dining rooms.

Tostenson said future White Spot builds will be altered to better serve takeout business.

Maia said that before the pandemic there was a notable demographic difference between Longo’s brick-and-mortar shoppers and those who ordered online.  Older customers moved online during the shutdown, and so the differences have been reduced.

Maia noted that online customers are much more inclined to criticize and provide input than was the case in simpler times: “We hear from guests more than ever if we drop the ball.” Because online shopping makes it easy for consumers to compare supplier offers, value has risen in importance in this new era.

Tostenson said a move toward online ordering and delivery must not become fully technology driven; it must be easy for guests to use.  But with that comes opportunities for salesmanship, such as drop-down boxes to order additional items. She said accuracy in order fulfillment is critically important. For example, those who order a roast beef dip must certainly also receive their au jus.

She said such marketing plans must be constrained to suit the reality of operations.  When her marketing team offered free delivery, the operations side of the business was unamused by the sudden surge in demand.

Maia noted that with the new lessons that have been learned, it has also become a time to re-try some ideas that may have failed in the past.  But since times have changed so dramatically, there are opportunities to reconsider old ideas. 

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