Which Ecommerce Platform is Best for Your Small Business?

choosing ecommerce platform

The Covid-19 pandemic propelled many small businesses–especially small farms like Greenfield Highland Beef—to adopt ecommerce. Some businesses started selling online right away, while others needed support to get going. In summer 2020, Good Egg Marketing worked with Greenfield Highland Beef to help them choose the best ecommerce platform for their online farm store. This guide walks you through the three stages that Good Egg and the farm completed: Needs assessment, product selection, and implementation.

Part 1: Identify your needs

Greenfield Highland Beef logoGreenfield Highland Beef is a 100% grass-fed and finished Highland beef farm in Plainfield, Vermont. Its award-winning products are savored by chefs and consumers alike. Pre-Covid-19, owners Ray Shatney and Janet Steward sold their beef direct to consumers at farmers markets and wholesale to stores and restaurants.

When the virus hit, many of their wholesale accounts dried up and farmers markets had to operate under stringent new safety conditions. Janet, who handles marketing and sales for the farm, spent hours on the phone taking orders. She quickly realized she needed an online store so customers could order and pay online for curbside pickup.

Janet didn’t have the time or technical skills to set it up on her own. Through the Carrot Project in Boston, Mass., Greenfield Highland Farm received technical assistance from Good Egg Marketing to set up an online ordering system.*

Small farms and local businesses have unique needs

In the standard ecommerce model, everything happens remotely: Customers purchase products from your online store, and you ship them their order. But many small farms, restaurants, and other local businesses don’t fit this model. Some don’t ship anything. Their customers order online but pick up their products in person or get them delivered.

Some local businesses are hybrids. In addition to running ecommerce stores, they also sell directly to customers at mobile markets, pop-ups, a farm store, a café, or other brick-and-mortar locations.

When you add an online store, you should think about how your digital operations will integrate with your existing sales, marketing, order-taking, fulfillment, inventory management, accounting, and customer service. The ideal ecommerce system won’t just enable you to sell online; it will help you manage your entire business more efficiently.

Assessing Greenfield Highland Farm’s needs

Good Egg Marketing met with Greenfield Highland Farm to understand their overall business goals and operations, as well as their ecommerce needs.

“For us, offering online ordering is about providing convenience and safety for our customers, while reducing the amount of time it takes us to fulfill orders,” Janet said.

Greenfield Highland Beef sells directly to consumers at two primary locations: Capital City Farmers Market in Montpelier and a pick-up site at the Plainfield Park & Ride. They appear at each site every other week, alternating between the two locations. In addition, customers can now preorder and pick up items from a self-serve biosecure refrigerator/freezer on the farm.

These are the “must-haves” that the ecommerce platform had to include:

  • Online ordering for onsite pick-up at the two locations and at the on-farm store.
  • Linking the online store to Greenfield Highland Beef’s existing website https://www.greenfieldhighlandbeef.com so customers can go back and forth between the farm’s site and the online store.”
  • The ability to track inventory, generate pick sheets, and manage fulfillment for both online and offline sales. Before the pandemic, Janet had been keeping track of her inventory in an Excel spreadsheet. She packed up whatever cuts were available and brought them to the market each week. If customers called or emailed to request that she bring a specific cut to the market, she’d make a note to set it aside for them. Online inventory management will save Janet time and ensure accuracy.

“Having an online order system that tracks inventory across all the places we sell [markets, online, wholesale, on farm] will give me a current, accurate count of what I’ve got in stock,” said Janet.

  • Integration with QuickBooks accounting system. Greenfield Highland Beef was already using QuickBooks for accounting and in-person credit card payments. Janet wanted a platform that would enable the farm to automate as much data entry and bookkeeping as possible.

We also identified some “nice-to-have” features that the farm also wanted, but weren’t musts:

  • Capacity to offer shipping and local delivery. Since the farm sells out of virtually everything they produce, they don’t plan to ship their grass-fed meat now, but this could be an option in the future. And they don’t currently deliver to local customers but may choose to do so down the road. So these were nice-to-haves, but not musts.
  • Online ordering for wholesale customers. Greenfield Highland Beef has been continuing to wholesale its beef to a few stores during the pandemic and plans to resume sales to restaurants when it’s safe to do so. While enabling wholesale customers to place orders online would be a plus, it wasn’t a “must-have” because the farm has a limited number of wholesale clients.
  • Marketing capabilities. Many ecommerce platforms include a variety of sales and marketing tools, such as email marketing, the ability to send messages to customers with “abandoned carts,” collecting customer referrals, and more. Some assist with helping businesses to get found online or implementing “upselling” strategies.

“We welcome new customers,” Janet said, “but my priority is keeping our current customers happy. I do want to start using Mailchimp, so it would be nice if the platform works with it.”

  • The capacity to sell variable weight items. Most fresh meat products are sold by weight, not by pre-sized packages, because it’s impossible to make every cut a uniform size. Some farm-based ecommerce systems give you the choice to sell by variable weight, as well as by the package. Greenfield Highland Beef has worked out a system that works well for the farm and its customers.

Each cut is listed with a minimum weight,” Janet said. “Prices are set for each cut, based on the price/lb. and that minimum weight.” She added, “Customers like it because they know what they’ll be paying for each item. They usually get more than the minimum weight, but I work with the butcher to keep each cut within a uniform range.”

To find out which systems we reviewed, read Part 2: Evaluate Your Options.

*The Carrot Project, a Boston-based nonprofit that provides one-on-one business technical assistance, financing, and trainings to farm and food businesses in New England and the Hudson Valley, used funding from the New England Food System Resilience Fund to support farms impacted by Covid-19.

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