Putting Some Meat in Ecommerce
By Greg Holden
Over the years I've written about people who sell lots of products online. There's one product a growing number of consumers are buying online that I've never written about, however, and that's meat. This is odd, because my fiancee and I periodically order meat online from a company called US Wellness, which offers grass-fed beef as well as free-range poultry and other products.
These days, the sale of gourmet and specialty foods online is big business. No less a player than Gilt Groupe is in the game. Earlier this month it launched an epicurean arm, Gilt Taste, including an online marketplace where consumers can order pricey delicacies like Spanish Mangalica ham, Australian Wagyu steaks, French Tomme de Savoie cheese, and lots of delicious-looking bon bons for chocolate lovers.
The first thing you probably think about when you think about buying or selling meat on the Web is, is it safe? The second is probably, what kinds of regulations and rules govern the sale of meat online?
The answers to the two questions are related. In order to sell meat over state lines, you need a USDA sticker called a "legend." To get the legend, your animals have to be inspected by the USDA, and the plant where the animals are processed needs to be inspected as well.
Be sure to do your homework.
If you're considering getting into this sector of ecommerce, be sure to check out the Food Safety and Inspection Service area of the U.S. Department of Agriculture website for an overview of what you need to comply with. Inspection Acts cover meat, poultry, and egg products sold in interstate commerce. Various chapters within the act require inspection of animals before and after slaughter, and govern the labeling and marketing of containers that hold food products.
State and local governments also get involved with businesses dealing in food preparation for resellers, so check with applicable agencies before proceeding. Massachusetts provides a guide to help specialty food and start-up food processors called The Massachusetts Food Processors Resource Manual that explains all aspects of running such a business.
John Wood, founding member of US Wellness Meats, spoke to me from a pickup truck driving through Missouri pastureland. He made the regulation and inspection requirements sound pretty matter-of-fact.
"There's not a lot of regulations," he said. "You have to have a USDA legend on the package. And beef, chicken, rabbit, and pork have to be inspected by the USDA. Except bison - if you sell bison, it makes no difference, a state inspection is enough."
The other factor in safety is shipping. Depending on the destination, US Wellness uses either FedEx Ground or Express. For air shipments, US Wellness packs its products with gel ice; for ground shipment, it uses dry ice. Most domestic shipments are delivered in 24 hours, some in 48 hours. They ship to all 50 states, and have shipped to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wood says that problems and complaints don't occur often, but they do accept returns if someone wants to do so. It's all a part of developing trust, which is one of the company's primary concerns.
"It doesn't matter what you are selling, you've got to develop trust in the buyer," says Wood. If something goes wrong, someone will answer the phone. I will answer the phone Sundays or Saturdays nights. People are shocked to get someone on the phone at that time."
Building trust and a solid customer base has taken time. The US Wellness site went online in 2001, but didn't start showing a profit for seven years. One "saving grace" has been the addition of a wide variety of products, including cheese, chicken, non-dairy ice cream, soaps, and snacks. Another key is communication - Wood's daughter produces a newsletter that is sent out every Sunday morning.
Another business that specializes in grass-fed and pasture-raised meat, Michigan-based Jakes Country Meats uses Facebook to connect with customers and fellow farmers. The business's upcoming appearances at farmer's markets are posted on Facebook. Customers frequently upload photos of meals they've made with meat purchased from Jake's. Farmers Nate and Lou Ann Robinson post available meats and prices on the website, but they only take phone orders. They do ship out of state, mainly to devoted customers who've moved away.
The times have caught up with purveyors of naturally raised meat. "Business has been real good," says John Wood. "We have more demand than supply." Ninety percent of US Wellness sales are made online.
Wood only sells to individuals and independent retailers, not the big grocery store chains. When I spoke to him in May, he was planning to appear on the Fox and Friends TV show in New York City on Memorial Day weekend, cooking breakfast on the sidewalk outside the television studio. The menu? Steak and eggs, of course.
Do you have an interesting story about your business or a set of tips to share with other ecommerce entrepreneurs? Contact me at email@example.com and you may be profiled in a future AuctionBytes column.
About the author:
Greg Holden is EcommerceBytes Contributing Editor. He is a journalist and the author of many books, including "Starting an Online Business For Dummies," "Go Google: 20 Ways to Reach More Customers and Build Revenue with Google Business Tools," and several books about eBay, including "How to Do Everything with Your eBay Business," second edition, and "Secrets of the eBay Millionaires," both published by Osborne-McGraw Hill. Find out more on Greg's website, which includes his blog, a list of his books, and his fiction and biographical writing.
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