CHICAGO — Establishing an online store can help put more food dollars into the hands of farmers that are selling meat directly to consumers.
“Your online store can be a competitive advantage,” said Katie Olthoff, farm wife and co-founder of ChopLocal.
“We do a survey every year and in last year’s survey farms with an online store are selling 40 to 60% more meat than farms without,” said Olthoff during a webinar hosted by the Food Animal Concerns Trust.
ChopLocal was launched in 2020.
“As the disruption was happening due to the pandemic, we saw farmers trying to move animals to market and have no where to send them,” Olthoff said. “We saw empty grocery store shelves for the first time in our lives, and we wanted to help provide a way to connect consumers and producers.”
Olthoff and her co-founder are part of an agricultural cooperative that owns a meat processing facility.
“ChopLocal is not structured as a cooperative, but the idea is the same,” Olthoff said. “Producers coming together in cooperative marketing can do a better job, benefit their operations and sell more product.”
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data in 2017, 147,000 livestock farmers were selling meat direct to consumers, but only 9% had an online store.
ChopLocal works with about 60 farms and has evaluated hundreds of online stores.
“The biggest mistakes we’ve seen is people fail to differentiate themselves effectively, they fail to give customers all the information they need, they fail to attract new customers and they fail to bring back repeat customers,” Olthoff said.
“Differentiating yourself is all about telling your story effectively,” she said. “You want customers to know why they should buy from you really quickly when they go to your website.”
When writing for online audiences it is important to avoid long paragraphs.
“People scrolling on their phone or computer will not read long blocks of text,” Olthoff said.
“Use bullet points, underlining and italics because this will draw attention to things that are important,” she said. “That gives people’s eyes a way to travel through your text to skim it effectively.”
Livestock farmers should include marketing or production claims such as grass finished or pastured pork on their website.
“You want to talk about the benefits of why you do what you do,” Olthoff said.
For example, a Wisconsin cattleman rotates his herd to a new paddock in his pasture every day at 5 p.m.
“That is a feature of his farm,” Olthoff said. “The benefit is he has grass finished beef, but with his intensive rotational grazing he is also contributing to soil health and that’s really important to customers who care about the environment.”
Including great photos of the farm and the family is an important part of the online store.
“Seeing a photo of your kids on the farm or you with your animals and green grass can bring back the feeling of nostalgia,” Olthoff said. “They will trust you when they can see your face.”
The goal for providing information to consumers is to reduce the number of questions they ask.
“You’re not standing at a meat counter or at a farmers market, so they have to message you,” Olthoff said. “Any time they message you, that’s a chance they will click away and purchase their meat somewhere else, which is a lost sale for you.”
Meat bundles are one way to increase a customer’s average order value.
“It can also be a great way to clear out your freezer inventory, but people want to know what’s in the bundle,” Olthoff said. “If things change in your bundle, update the description.”
Olthoff recommends including the shipping fees in the product cost.
“I know it’s not an exact science, but the No. 1 reason people abandon their carts online is because of surprise shipping fees at the end,” Olthoff said.
“The price online should include some of the shipping and then we offer free shipping for a certain size range of order — too small of an order doesn’t work for free shipping and too big doesn’t work either,” she said. “And we offer a discount for customers picking up their order or local customers.”
Pricing on weight ranges instead of exact weights is also a good idea for online stores. For example, a roast that is from 2.5 to 3 pounds costs $18.99 and if the roast is 3 to 3.5 pounds the cost is $24.99.
“We’ve done thousands of orders through ChopLocal and as long as the package has been within the stated weight range, we’ve never had an issue with anyone complaining,” Olthoff said.
Since customers are going to have questions, the online store needs an easy communication option.
“They’re probably sending you a question from their cellphone and they expect you to respond quickly,” Olthoff said. “The longer there is a delay between them asking a question and you answering it, the higher the chance they’ll find somewhere else to buy their meat.”
Building backlinks for a website can bring more customers to an online store.
“You can partner with other farms to put a link to your farm on their website,” Olthoff said.
“Or, you can partner with restaurants that uses your meat and those backlinks tell Google you have friends online and you are a trustworthy source of information, so Google can rank you higher.”
On the product pages of a website, Olthoff likes to include a photo of the raw product, a photo of the cooked product and a farm photo.
“That’s a visual reminder that they are purchasing from a farm and they can find out exactly where their meat is coming from,” she said. “It makes them feel really good versus going to Walmart and picking it off the shelf.”
Once an order is placed, Olthoff said, there’s no such thing as too much information about the order.
“Include a thank you note that has a family photo,” she said.