Building and launching an ecommerce platform from scratch is tough; performing that feat in the midst of a global pandemic is a lot tougher. But that’s the challenge Dawn Food Products faced and successfully met, CEO Carrie Jones-Barber said during B2B Next 2020 this week.

Despite the economic and workplace disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and shelter-in-place orders, Dawn Food Products still met its deadline to launch its ecommerce site in July, Jones-Barber told an audience during a B2B Next keynote session on Wednesday.

We faced a lot of challenges, such as having to digitize images of 10,000 SKUs.
Carrie Jones-Barber, CEO
Dawn Food Products

The process of building the site began more than two years ago for the manufacturer and distributor of bread, baked goods, mixes, and other food products. Recognizing the importance of a digital sales channel for its business, Dawn Food Products launched the project at “warp speed” to ensure the site was up and running as soon as possible, Jones-Barber said.

Hiring a chief digital officer

With no in-house ecommerce expertise, the initial challenge facing the 100-year old, the family-run manufacturer was building an ecommerce team from the ground up. The first step was to hire a chief digital officer who could oversee the recruitment and hiring of product managers, user experience designers, engineers and software designers to build Dawn’s digital sales channel.

As that process played out, an internal debate among Dawn’s board of directors took place over whether the new digital unit, dubbed the Digital Innovation Hub, would be located at the company’s headquarters in Jackson, Michigan, or in a metropolitan technology hub elsewhere. Having found much of the talent it needed in Boston, the company decided to locate its ecommerce team there.

As part of its strategy, the digital innovation team talked to multiple customers about the user experience they expected. Dawn’s customers order weekly or biweekly and often order the same items every week. Some of the digital tools built into the site to improve the user experience include monthly market assessments, online ordering and 24/7 inventory management. “Customer feedback really helped the team’s creativity in designing the site,” Jones-Barber said.

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Meeting a July launch date

As 2020 dawned and the site’s beta testing was wrapping up, the manufacturer set a July 2020 launch date for the site. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, and uncertainty arose as to whether the project could stay on track.

In one of her first actions, Jones-Barber conferred with the company’s chief digital officer to understand any remaining barriers to launching the ecommerce site and how the company could work around them. Her management team put in place a plan to keep the project moving forward as the company strategized on how to manage a work-at-home staff. Jones-Barber credits constant communications with the company’s digital team for keeping the project on track and meeting its July launch date.

“We faced a lot of challenges, such as having to digitize images of 10,000 SKUs, standardizing the naming conventions for those items so that buyers know what they are, and training sales reps how to use the site so they could become more consultative with customers, but we figured it out,” Jones-Barber said. “It wasn’t easy, especially during the first few weeks of the pandemic, but we still were able to launch on time.”

Learning how to ‘execute faster’

Aside from having to keep its digital sales initiative on track, Jones-Barber also had to manage the company during a pandemic. Since plant workers were deemed essential because Dawn produces food products, the company formed global and regional teams to develop and put safety guidelines in place for its in-plant workers. Each team meets weekly to review the guidelines and develop new strategies for keeping workers at its plants safe from the coronavirus.

The experience has made the company nimbler in responding to changing market conditions as a result of the coronavirus. “We were forced to make decisions faster, but we have learned how to execute faster,” Jones-Barber said.

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Working from home has also impressed upon the CEO the need to stay more connected with managers and to make herself more accessible.

“I found it means a lot to team members when I call to check in and see how things are going,” she said. “I have also found that finding something to be grateful for every day, which hasn’t always been easy these last several months, gives me the energy to stay connected with the team.”

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

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