The pandemic has brought about significant changes in how businesses operate – no doubt about it. But there’s a difference between temporary, reactive gains and genuine, considered improvement to futureproof the business.
James Langan, managing director at Natures Menu explains that his company falls in the latter camp.
As a premium pet food company, we’d always had a strong presence in-store. But people want a back-up for bricks and mortar now, and quite possibly in the longer term, too. So we had to ramp up our direct-to-consumer (DTC) offer, which entailed selling our goods straight to customers through our own channels, rather than through a traditional retailer or wholesaler.
In an environment where the official advice can change at short notice, people want to feel safe – and many are still more likely to do so at home. While pet stores weren’t closed during the lockdown, there was a noticeable decrease in footfall for obvious reasons; so continuing to focus all our efforts on the in-store experience would have been to ignore the concerns of our customers, and the performance of our brand.
As such, prior to lockdown, Natures Menu anticipated people’s change in behaviour. We ramped up our online capabilities, which accounted for 12% of our overall sales in March. In April, our online DTC trading accounted for 19% as lockdown measures impacted purchase behaviour.
As a business navigating lockdown and beyond, you have to look at the bigger picture and be honest about where you can up your game – and look at how you can genuinely offer something different.
To shift your operations like this, the business has to flex.
To cater to evolving consumer needs, we had to evolve with them. And to bolster our online offering meant changing many aspects of our operation. Demand for more home deliveries meant putting in place a broad range of logistical measures, from warehouse to doorstep; to optimise delivery, we used a mixture of our own fleet and our trusted third party, but we made a decision initially to put a cap on the number of orders we could deliver per day.
At a time like this, it’s important to set expectations. We gave our customers realistic delivery times and explained how things were working – the increase in DTC demand meant that, in order to deliver the sheer amount of food as hygienically and safely as possible, we initially had to put a limit on the amount of daily slots. Because we communicated clearly and openly, the reaction of our customers was overwhelmingly positive – everyone understands that safety has to be a top priority. We also reassured them that there was no need to panic buy and that we had plenty of availability.
Our ad agency HeyHuman also gave us valuable insight on how our customers were likely to be feeling, and therefore how we should communicate with them. They have a sophisticated range of neuroscience and behavioural research tools that really help businesses like us get to the bottom of what people want and, more importantly, why they want it.
On the back of HeyHuman’s advice, we tweaked our customer mailers and social media to be empathetic and entertaining as well as practical. We ran a cute survey asking people how their pets were reacting to having their owners home for much of the day; we also provided helpful tips for people to keep their pets entertained during lockdown.
Regarding the deliveries, we also spelled out exactly how our drivers would be keeping themselves and our customers safe; they’d be adhering to social distancing, they’d be disinfecting, they’d be asking for middle names or taking photos of packages rather than asking for handwritten signatures. The entire product journey, from production line to doorstep, followed the highest hygiene standards and we made sure to communicate that to our customers.
Maybe that amount of communication sounds like overkill, but reading the room is so important. HeyHuman’s advice was invaluable, advising us what to say and do – and more importantly, what not to say and do! When you’re making these shifts in tone and approach, it’s vital that a third party sense-checks, critiques and advises you on your messaging. What’s obvious to you and your business might not make sense to your customers.
DTC has built trust with our customers now, and lays a promising bedrock for the future.
We found that 87% of new customers who tried Natures Menu during the pandemic, via our DTC channel, planned to continue buying it once everything goes back to normal – I’m hesitant to call it ‘the new normal’, but you understand where I’m going.
From the feedback we received, the reason why this drive has been so successful is down to how transparent we made the process. Customers felt safe, they felt cared for, and as a result, they felt confident buying from us.
If the service is convenient and reliable now, people are likely to continue to appreciate having the choice either to buy directly from us online, or at their favourite pet store when we come out of this pandemic. We believe they will shop with a refreshed appreciation of, and loyalty to, our brand both online and instore, as a result of the support we’ve provided in these difficult times.
And this isn’t about replacing bricks and mortar stores – in fact, we’ve made it a priority to support our retailers as much as we possibly can. We are developing a Natures Menu accreditation system for certain pet stores covering training and product knowledge so that customers know these retailers are recognised as best in class.
Because as awful as this pandemic is, it’s bolstered Natures Menu’s relationship with its customers. We’re not going back once this is all over – we’ve found ways to complement our traditional, pre-pandemic practices and operations. DTC has allowed us to be more flexible, and talk directly to our customers about their needs – and their pets’ needs.
It’s a better way of doing things, and that’s what every business should strive for.