Coffee roasters looking to boost sales have for a long time used their websites as a convenient way to sell to retail customers. Over the past few years, centralized e-marketplaces that offer more than one brand have emerged as a way for roasters to reach beyond their local markets to sell their coffee from coast to coast.
While some of these sites sell everyday store-brand coffee, a few more recent start-ups have focused exclusively on offering specialty coffee directly from the roaster.
These online specialty retailers tout the e-marketplace as the perfect meeting spot for roasters seeking new business and consumers seeking better-tasting coffee.
But what do roasters, themselves,
have to say? Are these sites moving more beans or simply cannibalizing existing business? And is one site just like another?
What’s Not to Like?
The common denominator among these specialty coffee e-marketplace sites is that they offer one-stop shopping from top-notch roasters who are probably unfamiliar to most consumers. Only roasters with the highest quality standards make it onto their sites, retailers say.
“We want to know that they’re trying to coax the best taste out of each of the coffees,” says Scott Lush, who founded Boston-based ROASTe.com about a year and a half ago. “That’s what we’re looking for — a roaster who’s passionate, rather than a roaster who’s just trying to throw more coffee out there.”
The founders of GoCoffeeGo.com, based in San Francisco, tasted each coffee and personally met with each roaster before going live with their site last October. The retailers say they want to make sure the roasters they feature are meeting certain standards, such as roasting daily and separating organic from non-organic products.
“We want to be very careful who we bring on because we want to have the ultimate site for the best coffee on the Web,” says GoCoffeeGo.com co-founder Scott Pritikin.
Not all e-marketplace retailers operate in the same way. With both ROASTe.com and GoCoffeeGo.com, customers purchase the coffee through the e-marketplace retailer, which then takes a cut of each sale. The roasters ship the coffee. Other sites, such as Greatcoffee.com and Roatersclub.com, offer a combination — customers can buy specially featured coffee on the site or link to a roaster’s site directly from the e-marketplace.
Roasters themselves seem to like being in good company.
“The roasters that are on this are terrific,” says Tony Dreyfuss, co-owner of Metropolis Coffee, Chicago, whose coffee has been offered on GoCoffeeGo.com since the site’s inception.
Dreyfuss says giving customers one place to find coffee from all over the country is a real service. “It gives choice,” he says. “I like being part of something like that.”
One of the greatest advantages of such sites, these retailers say, is that they give national exposure to roasters who would find it difficult to capture that non-local dollar.
GoCoffeeGo.com has received plenty of press, having been mentioned in everything from The New York Times Style Magazine to Organic Spa Magazine. The site is also advertised on various consumer Websites, like Realtor.com.
Lush says his marketing reaches across the Web, including social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. He also uses affiliate marketing, so when an Internet user conducts a search for Krups coffee makers, for example, ROASTe.com will be included in the search results; the e-marketplace retailer will also appear on searches from specific sites like shopping.com and others that offer online comparison shopping. Lush says this is the type of national marketing a roaster wouldn’t be able to afford on his own.
For the most part, the handful of roasters represented here is not exactly inundated with extra sales from e-marketplace sites. But, they are generally pleased with the results.
Rick Terwilliger, co-founder of Rogue Coffee Roasting, Grants Pass, Ore., says currently online sales are split 50/50 between ROASTe.com and his own Web site, which he started about four months ago. With time, Terwilliger figures that ROASTe.com will probably only account for 10 to 20 percent of online sales as the internal Web site becomes more popular.
Nevertheless, Terwilliger says he and his business partner are satisfied with the added exposure the site offers. “We’re quite happy with them,” he says. “They’re out there doing what they need to do to get things moving.”
Lush says the No. 1 barrier that keeps roasters from signing up on ROASTe.com is the concern that local customers simply will buy through the e-marketplace site, rather than the roaster’s own Web site, resulting in lost profits. But Lush says order patterns from ROASTe.com are showing that local customers would rather buy their coffee from a local café or supermarket that carries the roaster’s brand, not online. “I’m telling roasters all the time: The benefit to you is gaining customers from outside your region,” he says.
Dreyfuss says he was at first skeptical that offering his coffee elsewhere online would only encroach upon his existing business. Dreyfuss says he regularly gets a few dozen orders from GoCoffeeGo.com, and while a few are from his local market, mainly, “They’re coming from all over,” he says.
Likewise, roaster Kathy Turiano says her existing clients and those brought in through ROASTe.com don’t overlap. While only about 10 percent of her online sales come through ROASTe.com, they are sales her business most likely otherwise wouldn’t get. That’s why she and her business partner chose to be on the site. “ROASTe really represented a different customer base that we didn’t have access to,” says Turiano, co-owner of Joe Bean Coffee Roasters, Rochester, NY.
Third-party on-line orders don’t represent a lot of business for PT’s Coffee Roasting Co., Topeka, Kan., says co-founder Fred Polzin. “It’s mixed. We’ve had some [sites] that have been pretty good, some that haven’t had much volume,” says Polzin, adding that he and his business partner are about to drop a few low-performing sites (which he declined to name).
Polzin says whether or not these sites are effective for a roaster depends on whether the roaster wants to turn a profit or simply promote his product. “It’s been a challenge for us to find a mix of both,” he says.
GoCoffeeGo.com and ROASTe.com, for example, only account for about 1 to 2 percent of PT’s online business, Polzin says. What such sites offer is promotional appeal.
“I know GoCoffeeGo does a great job of marketing their site,” he says.
The underlying problem is that many of these sites don’t produce enough volume to justify the wholesale prices some e-marketplace retailers require to earn a profit, Polzin says.
Ease of process/shipping can also be problematic. Some e-marketplace retailers, like GoCoffeeGo.com and ROASTe.com, do a good job of automating the back-end work, such as providing a ready-to-send shipping label, but other sites require the roaster to do much of the work, which adds to costs, Polzin says.
Overall, Polzin says it’s a matter of weighing the marketing value against the time/costs involved in handling this type of third-party business. “At the end of the day, we still have to make it worth our time,” he says.
Pumping Up Sales
What may be of particular benefit to roasters is when a site is running a special sales promotion or one of their roasts is specially featured somewhere on the site.
Mike McKim, owner of Cuvee Coffee Roasting Co., Spicewood, Texas, says on a weekly basis he generally ships out a handful of orders generated from GoCoffeeGo.com, but when the site runs a promotion, such as buy three roasts and get one free, that number more than triples.
“We get a huge influx of orders,” he says.
Product recommendations can also boost sales.
Lush says recently when a customer asked for a recommendation of a roast with certain characteristics, he recommended several brands. After choosing one — Boston-based Flat Back Coffee — the customer then reviewed it on a different on-line site. “As a result, Flat Back is getting more direct orders, and we’re getting orders from it,” as well, Lush says.
While each roaster on ROASTe.com is featured at one time or another, for no fee, Lush says what really drives sales is a mention in the site’s online newsletter, which has information about the latest trends and available roasts.
Meanwhile, on GoCoffeeGo.com, a character called Professor Peaberry, a veritable coffee “playboy,” makes periodic recommendations of various roasts on the site. “He never will settle for one coffee,” Papazian quips, referring to the professor as the “Hugh Hefner of coffee. “He likes to play the field.” Again, no fee is involved to be recommended; Peaberry simply chooses based upon his own tastes (which Pritikin and Papazian say pretty much coincide with their own).
In fact, aside from the variety, retailers seem to hope that the Web experience will attract both customers and roasters to their sites.
Dreyfuss admits that he, too, was at first skeptical about the value a service like GoCoffeeGo.com, “But I really, really loved the set-up of their site,” he says.
Dreyfuss especially likes the site’s auto ship feature, a patent-pending technology that allows customers to easily line up a mix of orders from multiple roasters and choose their shipping frequency.
“That queue is just so neat,” he says.
Pritikin and Papazian spent 2 ½ years working on the site; Pritikin engineered the technology and hired professional programmers to execute his plan and artists to create the visuals of the site in the belief that a good customer experience generates sales.
Along with receiving recommendations, coffee facts, and even brewing tips from Peaberry, users on GoCoffeGo.com can choose from an eclectic soundtrack of music to play as they peruse the site.
“If anyone sees a page from our site, they know it’s GoCoffeeGo,” Papazian says. “I think that’s what makes us strong.”
On ROASTe.com, users can apply various criteria when searching for coffee, including price, geographic region, and certification, such as Fair Trade or Shade Grown. Customers can also search for a particular characteristic, such as coffee with a citrusy or chocolaty flavor. “We worked extensively on the drill down functions so that you can choose exactly the right coffee that’s based on your taste,” Lush says. “The whole point is it’s easy to select a coffee from our Web site. We feel we do that better than others.”
|ROASTe makes available a Coffee Personality Test (http://bit.ly/dni6QG) that takes site users through a short quiz, and based on their responses to certain taste notes, growing regions, and a few other criteria, it points them to a list of coffees they are likely to enjoy. For coffee-lovers just beginning to increase their palate sophistication, this is a simple and effective tool to discover coffees they will enjoy.|
The site also recently began offering a coffee personality test, in which users are quizzed on such criteria as their preferred taste notes and growing regions, and then based on those responses are given a list of coffee they’re likely to enjoy.
Along with helping top-notch and often award-winning micro-roasters become known to a wider customer-base, these retailers say what they’re also doing is introducing the concept of high-quality roasts to those consumers who are more accustomed to buying off-the-shelf coffee at the local grocery store.
“We are working to bring a whole new demographic to specialty coffee online that didn’t exist before,” Pritikin says.
Papazian says sites like GoCoffeeGo.com expand the customer base for specialty coffee by exposing more consumers to quality coffee and, once hooked, encouraging them to dry different kinds of roasts on a regular basis.
“Once they discover all of that,” she says, “they can never go back to where they were.”