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Online ordering connects a small retailer to customers during COVID-19

A person ordering produce online using a hand-held mobile phone

During COVID-19, retailers searched for ways to connect with customers and make sales. One way they can connect with customers is by setting up online ordering for their customers. Online orders benefit both business managers and customers. Customers experience better reliability, responsiveness, and clarity about their transactions. Businesses benefit by reducing the time needed to make a sale, better tracking order information, and being able to market products more widely than bricks-and-mortar businesses can. For retailers, online ordering done well is another way to provide excellent customer service.

The retail and service industry has a variety of options to choose from to offer online ordering. In this article, we will focus on a business that uses Shopify. Shopify is one of the most popular e-commerce platforms and is user-friendly, making it an easy option for most business owners. But Shopify may not be a one size fits all. Business managers are encouraged to investigate other e-commerce platforms to find the one that best fits their needs.

How Shopify works

MANNA Food Co-op is a retailer that uses Shopify to sell products online for in-store pickup. MANNA has a small 1,200 square foot retail storefront in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. They used to sell produce online and assemble purchased meal kits for sale both in the store and online.

To expand its marketing reach, MANNA chose to use Shopify in three ways. First, they embedded Shopify’s “Buy” buttons to sell Native Meal Kits directly from a page on their WordPress website. This made their site look more like an online store rather than a static website. Second, MANNA used its new Native Meal Kits button in their weekly e-newsletter to bring people directly to the company’s website. Third, they included the “Buy” button in Facebook posts to promote online offerings. Altogether, this allowed the co-op to widely broadcast their meal kit offering to reach potential customers.

MANNA Food Co-op native meal kit website

The Native Meal Kits subpage uses Shopify’s “Buy” button to feature the product for sale and make it available for purchase directly on MANNA’s website. The “Buy” button tool creates code that is then included in the company’s current website code.

MANNA Food Co-op native meal kit setup process

Using Shopify MANNA created, for example, a bison meatloaf meal kit. MANNA entered a description, price, number available, and pick-up location. After choosing “embed on a website,” a code was generated. Since customers need to pick up the product (delivery was not an option), the co-op selected that it was “not a physical product” so Shopify did not prompt customers to choose a delivery option.

Co-op staff monitored incoming orders to prevent overselling, as some meal kit orders were also placed in person at the store. By capturing customers’ email address or cell phone number during the ordering process, MANNA could communicate directly with customers (outside the Shopify interface) to remind them to pick up their orders.

Shopify’s benefits, costs and challenges

MANNA saw the following benefits from using Shopify:

  1. Increase in sales: The new online ordering system pulled new customers into the store who needed to pick up their purchase. It also gave existing customers a reason to stop in the store more often. Plus, customers tended to routinely pick up other items while in the store, which helped boost sales.

  2. More attention from the media: MANNA Co-op was the first organization nationally to offer a traditional Native Meal Kit, which garnered both local and regional attention. Aside from a local Detroit Lakes Tribune article, stories about MANNA ran throughout the state in Forum Communications newspapers, and the Star Tribune featured the Co-op in an op-ed.

MANNA did incur costs by using Shopify:

  1. Monthly fee: The co-op used the Shopify Lite plan for $9.00/month since the store only used the “Buy” button. In comparison, Shopify’s basic plan with an online store is $29.00/month.

  2. Webmaster time: For each meal kit, the store’s webmaster (a volunteer) spent approximately 45 minutes to enter a product, write copy, and customize the web page.

  3. Staff time: While staff spent extra time monitoring orders in Shopify, most of that time was spent primarily on logistics and coordination with customers.

MANNA experienced a few challenges using Shopify:

  1. Customers not picking up orders: Some customers were unresponsive and did not promptly pick up their orders, even when contacted multiple times. This was a particular challenge with selling a perishable product.

  2. Ingredient ordering and availability: Since meal kits need all ingredients available and ready for assembly, ordering must happen at least a week in advance. With fresh and perishable ingredients, however, ordering must happen as near to assembly as possible. A couple times co-op staff had to substitute ingredients when products were not available from wholesalers.

Developing a business strategy

During a time of social distancing, offering online pickup or delivery makes great sense, but it may not be the best fit for all types of businesses or products. For example, it may be impractical to migrate hundreds of products to an online store or ship highly perishable products. While our Shopify example focused on a product for pickup, Shopify — and other tools like it — are geared toward an order and delivery model; if an item can be shipped, it may be a great opportunity for certain businesses.

Like any new initiative, dipping your toes in the water can help you gain confidence and learn the ropes of trying something for the first time. One way to start using Shopify is to choose a few select products you think make the most sense for online ordering. For a restaurant, try a popular or standard meal. If you operate a retail store, select a few top sellers or products in demand at the time. Try selling these products online and see how it goes. Shopify provides detailed and easy-to-follow tutorials.

Although we focused on Shopify in this article, there are many other options with a similar functionality. They may offer better terms or unique features for your business, so don’t feel Shopify is your only choice. Explore different products to find the right fit for customer service and marketing activities.

Seizing opportunity

After selling meal kits in 2019, MANNA was in a good place to take advantage of opportunities to better connect with and service their customers during COVID-19. In April, co-op staff sold ground beef in bulk in 10- and 25-pound lots to customers after purchasing a whole animal from a local farmer (which was approximately 750 pounds). With demand for meat and goods in bulk generally running high during the pandemic, co-op staff sold 600 pounds of meat within three days.


Ryan Pesch, Extension educator, community economics

Related topics: Community Economics
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