Determined to grow its ecommerce sales, FoodServiceDirect.com migrated to a new B2B ecommerce site that has handled a surge in B2C sales during the coronavirus pandemic.

After Unilever Food Solutions acquired it in 2018, FoodServiceDirect Inc. decided the time had come to scrap its legacy ecommerce platform with one able to support its goal of increasing online sales tenfold in three years and deliver the customized purchasing experiences B2B buyers want.

This is not a normal use case for us, but our decision to include a B2C site was the right one.
Adeel Murtaza, head of ecommerce technology
FoodServiceDirect Inc./Unilever Food Solutions
AdeelMurtaza--FoodServiceDirect-jpg

Adeel Murtaza, head of ecommerce technology, FoodServiceDirect Inc./Unilever Food Solutions

Beefing up B2B sales, however, was only part of FoodServiceDirect’s ecommerce strategy. As part of the foodservice division of giant consumer products manufacturer Unilever, it also intended to build a B2C website for consumers that prefer to buy in bulk, even though B2C sales are not its core business. FoodServiceDirect sells primarily to restaurants, hospitals and schools.

A timely shift to both B2C and B2B

Both moves have paid off handsomely. Since launching its new ecommerce platform in September 2018 at FoodServiceDirect.com, the company says it has seen B2B sales and new customer acquisitions each increase 40%, and repeat purchases jump 110%, says Adeel Murtaza, FoodServiceDirect’s head of ecommerce technology.

B2C sales, meanwhile, have exploded since March, when restaurants and schools across the United States began closing down due to the coronavirus pandemic. B2C sales are now accounting for 45% of FoodServiceDirect.com’s ecommerce sales, compared to 25% pre-pandemic, the company says. FoodServiceDirect.com, which replaced its legacy ecommerce platform with Adobe Inc.’s Magento Commerce, only sells online.

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The surge in B2C sales comes at an opportune time for FoodServiceDirect, as many consumers are looking for alternative suppliers from which to order food online as more familiar options, such as Amazon.com, are facing challenges to meeting increased demand. At the same time, B2B food suppliers are reportedly finding the transition to B2C ecommerce to be more difficult than expected as a way to offset lost B2B revenue.

B2C spike offsets drop in sales to restaurants

Through April, FoodServiceDirect’s B2C sales grew tenfold, up from an eightfold increase in March, the company says. Hospitals have been a robust segment, with sales increasing about fourfold. While sales of janitorial items increased about tenfold, the company quickly ran out of them, Murtaza says.

FoodServiceDirect.com carries more than 250,000 items, including specialty, ethnic and comfort foods, as well as “environmentally friendly” disposable products and supplies. Orders over $750 ship for free.

“Restaurants are our main customers, but many are idle right now,” says Murtaza. “What we are seeing instead is more movement to our B2C site. This is not a normal use case for us, but our decision to include a B2C site was the right one.”

The spike in B2C sales has also helped to offset some of the company’s decline in other B2B sales, Murtaza says without being more specific.

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Reaching out with Google ads

To reach new customers, FoodServiceDirect.com uses Google Merchant Center to create and manage ads using data from its product catalog. The company attributes a significant portion of new customer acquisitions to Google Ads. Murtaza adds that FoodServiceDirect.com has acquired new customers during the pandemic.

As part of its plan to modernize its B2B website, FoodServiceDirect also created a website in partnership with a major food-service franchise chain. The site enables franchisees to manage the ordering process across multiple locations from a centralized administrative dashboard.

One reason for selecting Magento Commerce, Murtaza says, is that it can easily connect to FoodServiceDirect.com’s dotdigital marketing platform. Integrating its marketing and ecommerce platforms allows FoodServiceDirect to track responses to marketing promotions and gather behavioral information about its customers that can be used to create custom user experiences on its websites.

Multiple customer journeys

“We have been able to create multiple customer journeys, which is something we could not do previously,” Murtaza says. “We are doing a lot of A/B testing to figure out which products each customer segment is looking for.”

FoodServiceDirect.com has also been able to integrate its customer relationship management, enterprise relationship planning and product management systems to Magento Commerce, enabling the company to build an ecommerce ecosystem designed to better engage and serve, Murtaza adds.

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Compatibility with mobile devices has been another key initiative. About 70% of FoodServiceDirect.com’s customers come to the company’s websites via mobile devices, Murtaza says.

Optimizing site responsiveness is viewed as a way to convert more customers, he adds. So far, the strategy is working. Since the launch of its new websites, 37% of visitors using mobile devices are purchasing instead of just browsing, up from 12%. “We had a lot of browsers come in through mobile devices before,” says Murtaza.

Migrating to a “headless” platform

The company is also building a mobile application that buyers can download to their smartphone; the app will provide a direct link to FoodServiceDirect.com. “That should help with customer retention” among mobile users, Murtaza adds.

Looking ahead, Murtaza plans to make FoodServiceDirect’s ecommerce stores completely “headless,” which he notes would give application developers more flexibility to create customized front-end experiences faster, and reduce hardware and support staff costs.

Headless ecommerce allows front-end and back-end ecommerce applications to operate independently. As a result, changes made to consumer-facing applications on the front-end do not require reciprocal changes to back-office applications and vice versa, which speeds the implementation of any changes made to the ecommerce platform. Front-end and back-end applications communicate using the software instructions built into application programming interfaces, or APIs.

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“Our aim was to build a better customer experience,” Murtaza says. “Ecommerce is not just about the website, but everything that goes around it.”

Peter Lucas is a Highland Park, Illinois-based freelance journalist covering business and technology.  

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