8 Things Our Founders Learned Growing an E-Commerce Site

August  6, 2016

You might have noticed: We're wishing our e-commerce Shop a very happy third birthday today! Though honestly, that's a bit of a misnomer. Even though the Shop is technically three years old, our founders Amanda and Merrill starting dreaming up, testing out, and eventually building and launching various versions of an e-commerce site as early as 2009. As our Managing Editor Kenzi tells us in this week's Burnt Toast podcast, "the things we've learned, the mistakes we've made, and the shipping disasters so large they warranted their own names" all have a place on the timeline.

Through it all, Amanda & Merrill persevered—and soaked up all kind of valuable insights. Here are eight things they learned growing the Shop side of Food52.

Photo by James Ransom

1. People love whisk necklaces and decorative wreaths.

When you launch a shop on a site called Food52, the obvious type of thing to sell is kitchenware—and to be fair, it is our top performing category. But we've also branched out with amazing results into home and even personal accessories; our wreaths from Creekside Farms and whisk necklaces from Mary Mary Handmade are consistently best-sellers.

As Amanda Hesser put it in our latest podcast, "The beauty of the really opened up our minds to the range of things that we could sell. It got us out of the kitchen more, which was super exciting—so did the whisk necklace! It was like what, we can sell jewelry? We sell a lot of jewelry!"

2. When people are responding to an aesthetic they like, they're open to a wide range of products. So having a point of view is important.

Our vintage category is a great example—as we've always stocked it, over time the look became ingrained in the Food52 aesthetic: Our photography features vintage props woven through with modern pieces, as do the shelves in our office. And vintage has continued to perform well in the Shop.

So recently, when we broadened our vintage offerings from copper cookware and silver flatware to more homewares—think stoneware crocks, French schoolhouse chairs, linen pillowcases, etc.—our shoppers trusted us.

"I think our strong point of view in terms of aesthetic, paired with the care we put into product selection and story-telling, have enabled customers to embrace this evolution alongside us," says our buyer Kristina Wasserman.

3. People want to know the stories behind the things they purchase.

Stories are critical to how we present products: When we vet a new saucepan, spatula, knife rack, or set of dryer balls (yes, it's a tough job but someone's got to do it), we're considering the designer and producers behind it as well as the piece itself. And we tell their stories, because that's what typically won us over in the first place.

It's people who make our Shop a shop, after all; we can't sell anything if there aren't designers, manufacturers, and operations teams to help us do it. And celebrating them, giving that glimpse into the back story, has always resonated with our readers and shoppers.

4. You only get one shot at customer care.

As shoppers, we all know this is true: When you have a bad online shopping experience, that company loses your business forever. But from Amanda and Merrill's perspective, the flip side is just as important: You also only have one chance to win someone over, too.

Our Director of Customer Care, Rebecca Salisbury, gave me an example: "We just had a customer who ordered coffee from one of our merchants and, instead, received a box with a used cable box inside." (Don't worry, this is highly unusual!) Since all our merchants handle shipping themselves, it would have been tempting to place the blame on the maker—but Rebecca's team instead took responsibility: "We apologized, sent her the right item, and now, we're surprising her with a beautiful hand-thrown mug to go with her coffee."

We don't know that this shopper will now be a life-long Food52 Shop devotee, but reacting any other way would have definitely lost her forever.

5. People will shop with you for things they can get on Amazon, if you give them a great story and a great experience.

In addition to all the small makers who sell their products in our Shop, we also partner with larger and older trusted brands—like Staub, Mauviel, Peugeot, and the like—whose products are sold in countless other national stores. But, we've learned that providing context (those stories we mentioned earlier) and color (ace photography, understanding customer care, and the like) is so valuable and unexpected to a shopper that they'll choose to buy it from us, instead.

We also reiterate, over and over to our Shoppers, that we don't sell just anything in our Shop—we curate the selection, and have very high standards. "There is the knowledge and understanding that more care has gone into the product's selection," our buyer Krisitina says, "We've used it, we've tested, and love it—I think it means more to customers to trust who they're buying something from."

6. When you run a food/commerce company, Q4 is totally insane.

Oh, did you need us between now and the New Year? Planning for our holiday season starts in May—and, well, technically the preceding January, when we talk about our wins and losses of the previous season. For our Shop, it's a particularly intensive time, as our sales goals soar (most retailers do a very large percentage of their sales this time of year).

"There is also pressure to differentiate yourself from other brands," Kristina says, "What can we offer that's unique and exciting? Creatively, it's also a time to expand your horizons, which is really fun. Ideas for colors, themes, and stories (whether apparent or something that connects a vision together below the surface) are endless. It's a high pressure time, but also an exciting time in terms of being an opportunity to think big and push creative boundaries."

7. Yes, people love sales, but they also love curveballs.

The reasons most retailers bombard you with discounts and sales and free this-or-that in your inbox? It's a lever they can pull to make money. But what's the fun in it? We'd rather send a playful email that teases, "Take a stay-cation. Beachy, tiki, and twinkly Shop finds." than have every subject line lead with a percentage off (we even suspect that the latter would start to get boring, and lose its luster, for a reader). "People are conditioned to respond to sales, discounts, promotions, etc." Amanda and Merrill explain, "but if you can give them something different and add value in other ways, you can break them out of their established patterns."

For example, rather than rely on a promotion every month, our Merchandising Manager Hannah decided to start sending a "Friday Find" email at the end of every week, as a way to unearth and cast a spotlight on some of our standout pieces that get lost underneath constant best-sellers. From fresh peaches to a portable log starter, the finds have been hits—they're usually under $50, unique and unexpected, and timely. And it's been proof: Give shoppers something new and different, and they won't feel like they have to wait around for a sale to shop with you.

8. We will never sell fresh turkeys again!

For good reason—but you'll have to tune into the latest episode of Burnt Toast to hear all about why. You won't regret it: The whole episode is chocked with priceless anecdotes from over the years, and more than a few more learnings.

Have you wished our Shop happy birthday yet? Right this way!

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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Amanda Sims

Written by: Amanda Sims

Professional trespasser.

1 Comment

Rhonda35 August 7, 2016
Thanks for sharing what you've learned over the years!