Breweries across Australia navigated the move to online sales platforms during the pandemic, but for those that have decided to keep their platforms going, taking it to the next stage can be difficult.
Easy-to-install online shopping platforms like Shopify were a lifeline to many smaller brewers during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent restrictions, and platforms were launched in haste to take advantage of the opportunity online sales can provide when venues shutdown.
“It’s challenging, but it is a huge opportunity and overall it’s worth it, for small and independent brands it’s a way of owning the communication with your customers and developing that direct relationship,” said Dr Jason Pallant, senior lecturer in management and marketing at Swinburne University.
However there are challenges in the online space for breweries, which tend to be small businesses, in what is a well-developed area for many other industries.
“The big challenge is that consumers are more experienced and have high expectations for what an online and delivery experience should be like,” he said.
“As consumers, we’re spoiled by the big guys doing two-hour deliveries, and our expectations are increased based on that and that can be hard for a small brand doing it for the first time who is getting up to speed with what customers expect.”
Other difficulties lie with the inevitable reliance on third parties, not just during the online shopping experience with platforms like Shopify, but with delivery companies too.
“Relying on external parties or supplies to complete a transaction and a delivery can be difficult – we saw towards the end of last year AusPost struggling to get any deliveries done, and the consumer turns that back on the brand they bought from even if it’s not their fault.
“We expect so much and it’s not always completely in the control of small independent breweries.”
What can breweries do to bolster their online presence?
Nathan Bush, director of eCommerce Strategy at eSuite and host at Australian eCommerce podcast Add to Cart said that one of the best things a brewery can do initially is bring in the professionals.
“I always believe in starting simple and preserving your differentiators,” Bush said.
“After all, you are great at making beer, you probably aren’t great at making websites. Focus on making great beer.
“The areas that I usually look at when businesses are starting out or looking to scale their eCommerce are firstly, people. Do you have the right people around you to run this thing?
“It’s not only building a website, it is creating product and product content. Customer service. Financial reconciliation. And if it all goes right – can your team scale with your sales? You don’t necessarily need to employ more people to fill the gaps, if you engage the right partners, agencies or freelancers, it can be a great way to start without overcommitting.”
When COVID-19 lockdowns effectively wiped out on-premise revenues, breweries naturally turned to online platforms to sell beer. While many more established brands had already set up, smaller local brewpubs were sent scrambling to get their websites in order, and many went in for Shopify, which has its limitations but proved to be a lifesaver for many businesses.
“Shopify is a great starting point for most online businesses. They now also service larger clients with their Plus product which is worth considering once you crack about $2 million turnover.
“For businesses where there is a high level of customisation or international presence, Shopify can be challenging.
“However, this is often offset by a great partner ecosystem and a community where everyone is continually learning from each other.”
But if online platforms are something that a brewery wants to focus on when futureproofing (and pandemic-proofing) the business, it also might be worth having greater control over your online point of sale.
What little things can we fix to make the UX better?
User experience (UX) is a key component of online sales. Having a well-run website, focusing on usability and searchability is key to a good online experience.
Fixing glitches or annoyances and being responsive to complaints from customers about the above is also essential.
“Consumers are fed up with going to a website, putting a product in the cart and seeing it’s out of stock right at the end of the transaction.
“We expect to see live, up-to-the minute stock levels, and whether it’s in stock or not, that’s a challenge – having a warehouse or stockroom linked to our website somewhere,” said Dr. Pallant.
Nathan Bush agreed, saying that this can be a tricky part technically for a small business, but is worth getting right.
“The biggest thing is usually integration with existing systems like point of sale or inventory systems.
“If a client is starting from scratch, we usually look to make the eCommerce business and technology as free-standing as possible and then look to integrate it over time once the business model is proven and further investment can be justified.”
Having add-ons and pop-ups, prompting customers to not forget what is in their baskets can also increase the chances of full sale completion, but there is a fine line to walk with these add-ons to prevent user annoyance with the process – ultimately defeating the aim of an easy and smooth user experience.
Gifting and deliveries
The beer industry is an exciting and interesting place right now, explained Bush, and a brewery’s online presence can be bolstered through communities.
“We’re dealing with a product that is regularly purchased, has an infinite number of flavour combinations and can build a really strong brand. Beer clubs and subscriptions are a great way to have customers regularly purchase and build a community around the experience.
“Additionally, gifting is a really strong category for beer – especially when it comes to being able to package up interesting and personalised products,” Bush said.
The potential in gifting and ecommerce – which saw online sales at Coles Liquor increase 72 per cent in its most recent quarter on its previous period – can come with challenges in maintaining brand standards.
“I’ve been excited to get a mixed box that looks great online but it comes and the pack is dented, it does diminish the customer experience,” said Dr Pallant.
“The packaging for deliveries is a lot more important than we think. That is part of the customer experience and the experience of buying and consuming that product, it arriving and unboxing it.
“You need to put a lot of thought into how to get that product to someone in a safe way and how you’re delivering it so it becomes an experience.
“It’s also an opportunity, if you can do something unique in that space.”
Unboxing videos on social media for instance are very popular, and people are more likely to share their experiences and discuss them online if they have had a good experience. This has become particularly the case during lockdowns, said Dr Pallant.
“In Melbourne for those of us in lockdown or going intermittently into lockdown, that’s been our only experience of retail for quite a while, we want that excitement and visual design we would get from visual stores through those delivery processes.
“If people can’t come to the brewery and experience that physical space, what can you provide in the delivery package to give some sense of that?”
Having a review or ratings system, or sending email requests for review can also provide valuable feedback to a company, and keep the dialogue with the customer open even after purchase.
The final component of the user online experience is of course the delivery, which comes with its own issues.
“Increasingly customers are after not only fast delivery but flexible delivery – a lot of us are fed up with the Australia Post card saying we tried to reach you, at 11am when pre lockdown, people weren’t at home,” said Dr Pallant.
“Providing some options or flexibility around deliveries is now becoming an expectation.”
The online space, everything from the technicalities of website design to providing good delivery experiences, is a huge opportunity for breweries.
“It comes down to experiences – especially for beer,” explained Bush.
“The ability to try new and interesting things isn’t for that moment of tasting – it’s the moments of sharing, whether that be in Facebook groups or at a local BBQ, and the ability for people to have a unique and interesting experience that will live a lot longer than the drinking moment.”