Ideal time for farmers to try e-commerce

(File photo by Kay Shipman)

There’s no time like the present for farmers considering e-commerce with more of Americans shopping for food online during the COVID-19 outbreak, according to Illinois Farm Bureau’s food systems specialist.

“This online surge is to be expected,” Raghela Scavuzzo, IFB associate director of food systems development, told FarmWeek. “E-commerce decreases the exchange of money and number of people in a store.”

In fact, 31% of U.S. households, or roughly 40 million, used online grocery services, including home delivery and pickup during March, based on research from Brick Meets Click and ShopperKit as reported by “Grocery Dive.” That was more than double the number of monthly online grocery shoppers since August 2019.

Of those online grocery shoppers surveyed, 26% reported buying groceries online for the first time. Nearly 40% of first-time shoppers were 60 and older. Among online shoppers, total monthly order volume jumped 193%, while monthly order rates grew 19% compared to August 2019 numbers.

“Online shopping has been growing for the past several years,” Scavuzzo said. “This moment in time escalated this interest dramatically. As people are looking to the long-term impacts, this is a trend that may stay.”

The food specialist pointed out several safety factors of online ordering while Illinois and many other states are emphasizing social distancing and sheltering in place.

“For curbside pickup, grocery workers are packing the bag. With delivery, the designated shopper may be shopping for multiple customers,” Scavuzzo noted.

“Shopping online also streamlines overall time spent in a store,” she continued. “If people pre-order, they won’t take time examining the product or adding items. All these factors increase safety at the store, and the store’s ability to follow social distancing guidelines. Due to this, many more stores have added this option to their business. We have not just seen this in grocery stores, but also farmers’ markets and farm stands.”

Conducted in March, the survey involved more than 1,600 U.S. adults. Roughly 30%, or about 16 million households, who hadn’t bought groceries online in March, indicated they would if the COVID-19 crisis didn’t subside.

COVID-19 could lead to more online U.S. food sales over the long term. Some consumers may return to shopping in stores, while 43% said they would continue shopping online.

Scavuzzo agreed e-commerce doesn’t provide the same shopping experience of a farmers’ market or an agritourism business. However, e-commerce allows farmers to diversify their customer base and marketing.

“E-commerce allows a business to function not only in times like these, but it will also help when weather decreases attendance or reach the consumers who don’t have time that week for an experience,” she said.

Timing, and a leniency factor, make now a perfect time for those who can and were considering e-commerce to give it a try, according to Scavuzzo.

Previously, many businesses worried about the time needed to develop, maintain and manage e-commerce, but necessity changed that, she noted.

“Everyone is cognizant that this is a time of adjustment for the business, and they are doing this to help the customer,” she continued. “On a normal rollout of e-commerce, there is an expectation of near-perfection. If it doesn’t work or happen with ease the first time, a customer may not return. Now people seem to be more aware and willing to allow a business to learn.

“Due to the increased demand, slower pace of life and a more understanding customer base, this is the ideal time to take the jump into e-commerce,” Scavuzzo said, acknowledging that some may feel the steep learning curve of new technology, promotions, online store procedures and different payment methods may seem overwhelming.

“It doesn’t have to seem as terrifying as the barrier to making the jump can feel,” she said. “Many e-commerce companies and nonprofits are offering technical assistance. Furthermore, other farms and markets are going through the same things and can share their experiences. If after trying this, a business realizes that it isn’t for them, that is OK. This is a great moment to try because there is demand and interest.”

As businesses learn, they will determine how to make e-commerce a sustainable system for their new market after social distancing ends, Scavuzzo concluded.