How diversified businesses found new markets through Covid

Rebecca Mayhew of Old Hall Farm, Woodton, Norfolk, has seen a thriving online business develop out of the coronavirus crisis.

Along with her husband Stuart, she runs a café, butchery and farm shop specialising in raw milk and dairy products from the farm’s herd of Jersey cows. Prior to Covid-19 they sold relatively small amounts of goods online.

In common with many farm shops, the couple quickly introduced a click-and-collect service and started offering deliveries to local villages and into Norwich when lockdown struck last March.

See also: How to benefit from the growing demand for holiday lets

© Jack Mayhew

But they also decided that they needed to develop their online offering and built a basic online shop using the e-commerce platform Shopify.

“We are quite a diverse business, but we went from being a café and farm shop to being Ocado! Our online sales went through the roof and are still growing now,” says Mrs Mayhew.

Before lockdown she estimates the family were sending out about 20 online orders a week to retail customers. Now she sends out more than that on any one day, offering deliveries on a nationwide basis.

Many of these orders are fulfilled using the courier APC Overnight – one of the only couriers willing to handle liquids.

“We also deliver into Norwich on a Thursday, and that has grown from being a couple of people on the school run to business worth about £600 a week. It’s a bit like doing a farmers’ market but without actually having to do it,” she says.

Mrs Mayhew says the online business has primarily been promoted using social media, which she both loves and hates. She loves the fact it works, but warns that people do expect instant answers, which can be difficult to manage.

She believes people’s interest in food has grown massively since lockdown – which is why they regularly attract orders for raw milk from customers based in London.

Now that the hospitality sector is getting going again, they are also being asked to supply butter and cream to three separate Michelin star restaurants.

Most of the customers who wanted local deliveries during the first lockdown are now returning to the farm shop and, encouragingly, many of the new customers they attracted at the height of the crisis are continuing to buy from them, says Mrs Mayhew.

“I think our customer reach last March/April/May/June probably went up by about 60% and I think we have kept nearly half of those, which I know is higher than some people are reporting,” she says.

“We are either lucky or doing something right. But we do find that people are much more interested in what they are putting into their bodies. So I think people have liked what they tried and want to keep buying.”

Finding new outlets after weddings halted

Shropshire Petals’ approach to tackling the Covid-19 crisis has involved returning to its roots.

The flower petal confetti business was launched in 2005 by the Bubb family on their farm near Newport in Shropshire, after the dried flower arrangements they were selling in the 1980s fell out of fashion.

© Shropshire Petals

As a result, they decided to start focusing on growing and selling natural, biodegradable petal confetti for the wedding market, which was growing in popularity as many venues banned paper confetti.

Ashley Evers-Swindell, marketing manager, says, before Covid-19, they could have 300 orders or more a day of natural confetti to dispatch on a summer’s day. But after lockdown was introduced in March 2020 and thousands of weddings were postponed, this fell to nothing almost overnight.

Like other businesses they needed to adapt.

Their first solution was creating DIY kits for customers looking for something to keep them busy during lockdowns.

However, it was a decision to concentrate on selling dried flower arrangements for home décor and gifts that proved to be a lifeline for the business.

They started selling a range of new bouquets and arrangements online, including letterbox versions – tapping into renewed interest for dried flowers because they are sustainable, eco-friendly and last for months.

Orders could be placed through their own website or though the online platforms Etsy and Not On The High Street. These avenues were particularly crucial in helping them to find new customers, given their own website is more wedding-focused.

One of the most challenging aspects of the new enterprise was figuring out what style of bouquets people would buy, involving lots of research into colour and interior design trends. But their efforts paid off.

“Over the past year, demand for dried flowers has absolutely boomed,” says Ms Evers-Swindell. “During the third lockdown, it went absolutely berserk. February 2021 was probably the peak – we obviously had Valentine’s Day and then Mother’s Day after that and we were coming in at the weekends to keep up with demand.”

She says demand for confetti is now returning to normal, but the crisis has opened their eyes.

“We have always very much thought of ourselves as a wedding supplier, but I think we have realised there are all these other touchpoints in people’s lives we can be associated with.

“We’ll never lose the wedding side of things as that is true to our heart, but we are now here for occasions and for celebrations of life, too.”

Staying ahead by staying agile

Double H Nurseries in Hampshire is the largest grower of orchids in the country, but when demand from the usual supermarket outlets dried up due to Covid-19, the family-owned business faced a big problem.

Sales in April 2020 dropped off a cliff with the country in lockdown, falling to about 10-20% of normal levels.

Andy Burton © Russell-Sach

To secure the future of the nursery, Double H hastily set up its first-ever online shop.

Andy Burton, managing director, says the business already had a website called Love Orchids, which offered tips on how to look after the plant. So  decided to start selling direct to customers through this site, using Shopify to manage the e-commerce aspect.

It took just one week to launch after coming up with the idea and within four weeks they had sold more than 40,000 orchids, which would otherwise have ended up on the compost heap.

“We had a bit of luck in that we got some PR in a local newspaper and that got sales going surprisingly well, as I think people wanted to support local businesses,” says Mr Burton.

“A photographer then took a picture of the glasshouse and sent it to The Telegraph, which ran it as a picture caption in its business section. That really got things going.”

A year on, the online retail business has generated £0.5m of revenue and while wholesale sales are now back on track, the Love Orchids online shop has become a permanent feature.

Mr Burton says compared to his supermarket sales, the proportion of flowers sold through the website is very small. But he has decided to keep the site going as it also offers other business benefits.

“We are going to continue to use it to help manage surplus orchids, as there are weeks of the year when we have too many,” he says.

“It’s also quite nice to be able to have a channel to test products out on – for example, by gathering customer data on colour preferences.”

Mr Burton says one of the biggest challenges in starting the new enterprise was developing packaging that allowed them to get orchids safely to customers through the courier network, given they are quite fragile and perishable.

There was also a learning curve in terms of setting up customer services, as suddenly they were receiving emails from individual customers with queries that needed answering.

Andy says his tops tips based on managing change as a result of a crisis are:

  • Be agile: when everything is changing very quickly, you have to change how you work equally fast to keep up.
  • Believe in your product: if you have a good product at the right price then people will want to buy it. The challenge is how they find out about it and how you get it to them if your normal supply chain and sales channels are disrupted.
  • Look forward: it is very easy to get sucked into the detail during a crisis and just focus on the day-to-day activities. Making time to keep looking ahead and thinking about how your strategy and vision needs to evolve helps you spot opportunities and also gives your team confidence to follow your leadership and stay motivated in stressful and tough times.

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