Posted: 08/04/2020

How to move your retailing business online during coronavirus


In the wake of the coronavirus crisis and the restrictions placed on businesses and households, many food retailers are looking to set up an online offering, but what are the dos and don’ts of such a move?

FFD has spoken to three experts in internet retailing to find out what are the key things to remember when making a move into e-commerce, and what to avoid.

unsplash-logoAndrew Neel
“Just do something”

According to Charlie Turnbull, founder of Delishops, an online platform to help small food retailers get their business on the internet, setting up some sort of e-commerce side to your business is crucial.

“People are changing their habits fast and if they go off and find a new place to buy cheese online because you’re not offering it, that customer might never come back to you,” said Turnbull.

Charlie Turnbull
Charlie Turnbull

“You have got to do something – your customers are at sea right now and you could lose them. You don’t want to have to rebuild; you want the day you open to have the same number of customers as the day you closed.”

He advised small retailers who have not had an online store to get even a small number of products online. “Even if it’s just putting some pictures of products up online with prices and a telephone number, it is valuable.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of retailers and right now that is their life-blood – selling products via email.”

But this has its drawbacks. “if you have a range of 1,000 to 2,000 products unless they’re up there, you can’t sell them,” said Turnbull, adding that there is no stock control, no pricing and no browsing. 

Alec Paterson, chief commercial officer at BoroughBox, an online marketplace offering the company’s own boxes and a platform for fine food producers to sell their products, recommends keeping things simple by using a pre-existing online platform like Shopify, Delishops or BoroughBox, among others.

Also crucial in maintaining a simple offering, he said, is to package items together. “Instead of offering 200 different lines of vegetables, offer a vegetable box in different sizes.

“It is far easier to manage, can be packed in batches, and can be flexible to your supply.”

Do the numbers

Paterson added that the thing people most often overlook is the added cost of selling online.

Alec Paterson

“Just make sure that when you’re delivering or packaging up and sending out you have a keen understanding of what the costs of delivery and any packaging are going to be,” he said.

“Remember that most supermarkets lose money on their delivery service –it’s expensive to pick pack and deliver, make sure the costs are accounted for.”

Turnbull echoed this message, suggesting retailers focused on their local area for deliveries at first, and, if retailers did have to send packages further afield, to make sure customers are spending enough to make it profitable.

He added, “It is likely that you will have too many orders to deal with. I know of three businesses who have had to pull their websites down as they could not handle the influx of customers and are now dealing with all orders through email.”

Be heard and be seen

“E-commerce is part sales, but it’s also about marketing,” said Turnbull, emphasising the importance of using social media and email to attract new customers and keep them engaged. 

However, advertising nationally on social media may attract customers from too far afield.

Vhari Russell

“Keep it local to start with,” said Vhari Russell of The Food Marketing Experts. “Use Facebook Marketplace and look for village or town Facebook groups to promote your online shop and delivery.”

She also advised stocking lines from producers in the local area who need to shift stock, then they can provide a marketing boost for your store on social media.

Russell said that remaining upbeat is key to social media. “Always remain positive in your posts and avoid getting into any political views or large statements and discussions,” she said.

She also suggested drafting responses to scenarios you may encounter when interacting with people on social platforms. “I would draft a response to a complaint and a response to a positive comment just so that even if you’re not the person responding, the person who does respond has some guidelines on how to address issues.”

Turnbull added that you shouldn’t avoid asking your customers for help, as they want to. “Most people aren’t directly working to combat this crisis in the NHS, so they want to do their bit and keeping small businesses alive is one thing they can contribute,” he said.

“Every retailer should have a list of email addresses for their regular customers. It is the most important thing that you need,” added Turnbull.

Agreeing, Russell said that you have to have a sizeable database of customers’ emails to make the practice work. 

“Don’t assume that because your farm shop or a deli has always been really busy that the same will be the case online,” she said. “Make sure that you capture data. Drive people to your website and run a competition to get email addresses of your customers.”

“It’s not rocket science”

Closing his advice to FFD Paterson said: “It’s not rocket science. If you already operate a shop and you already understand customer service, it’s as important online as offline. 

“Make sure customers have a way of getting in contact with you, and if things go wrong make sure you apologise and make things right. Replicate your good in-store customer service online.”

Turnbull stressed the importance of ensuring you have some kind of online offering. “The most important reason to do business online or do deliveries is to make sure you have a business to go back to.”


Alec Paterson is chief commercial office at BoroughBox

Charlie Turnbull is a founder of Delishops

Vhari Russell is the founder of The Food Marketing Experts

Read stories like this and more in the digital edition of Fine Food Digest here.

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