Two retailers—CakeSafe and Julia Rose Boston—use Instagram to boost sales, create a personal connection to its customers and drive more conversion on its products.

CakeSafe—a retailer that sells protective boxes for cake transportation, among other cake-related items—recently began taking advantage of Instagram’s Reels feature. Reels is similar to social media video platform TikTok, in which users record videos and add captions and music. The retailer posted a Reel in early February of a customer using one of its products. That one Reel increased the sales of that product by 280% when consumers headed to CakeSafe.com to purchase that product.

“Instagram is our best sales generator,” says Rachel Moreschi, chief marketing officer at the retailer.

While CakeSafe uses Instagram to build brand awareness and attract shoppers to come to its website, luxury bag retailer Julia Rose Boston uses Instagram to conduct sales. The merchant uses Instagram Stories and Reels to show off the details of each of its high-end pieces, such as an $8,000 Hermes Birkin bag, as well as show a person holding or wearing the products.

“Instagram Stories create a sense of urgency that doesn’t exist when you don’t have a complete website and a way to show products that isn’t captured in a static photo,” says founder Julia Carney.

Social media platform Instagram began as a place for consumers to connect with friends, share food pictures and their outfits of the day. Instagram added a shopping element in March 2017, enabling shoppers to buy a merchant’s product directly from Instagram rather than follow a link to purchase on an ecommerce site.

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48% of retailers say social media is very important to improving their conversion rate, according to a Digital Commerce 360/Bizrate Insights survey of 103 retailers conducted in February 2021. Social media trails only email marketing at 51% and ties branding as very important to retailers in increasing conversion.

But it’s not enough for a brand to simply be present and post on social media in order to drive sales. “One thing that major corporations lack is a connection between their customers and themselves,” says Jonathan Snow, co-founder and chief operating officer of digital marketing agency The Snow Agency. “If you work to reach out to your customers online and personally know who you are selling too, it makes people more inclined to want to continuously go back to your company’s website and social media accounts time and time again. Take the time to make these connections and success will start to grow.”

CakeSafe finds the good news in its marketing

CakeSafe had a similar customer-centric mindset when the COVID-19 pandemic threw its growth and marketing plans for a loop.

Before the pandemic, CakeSafe was tracking 30% online sales growth every year, but the business came to a complete halt for about a month. Most of its customers—small and large bakeries—were closed and many were reliant on events.

“We received a fraction of the orders of a typical month, but who was thinking about investing in their baking business at this time? We had to reevaluate,” says Moreschi.

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It switched its marketing tactics completely. “My strategy was to treat our customers like friends and family and go on that personal connection,” she says.

While CakeSafe continued to promote product markdowns or any other business-related angles, it chose to use its blog posts, social media and email blasts to tap into the human angle of the business. For example, it began to share good news via email blasts, such as an employee who had a baby, beautiful scenery, pictures of employees’ pets or a positive story of someone who overcame COVID-19. In addition, CakeSafe donated 1.9% of its proceeds to COVID-19 relief funds.

“We’ve always treated everyone like family in our marketing, but we ran with it more after the pandemic,” Moreschi says. “Our customers’ value is more than sales. We run product designs by them, created a private Facebook group for them. The best way to sell is not for the company to tell them to buy, but from the people in the group with real experiences using our products in the group.”

CakeSafe posts behind-the-scenes videos on Instagram Reels.

It also took that human element to social media, particularly to Instagram. It uses Instagram Reels, as well as IGTV (longer-form videos) to showcase products and give shoppers a behind-the-scenes look at its operation. For example, it posted Instagram Reels of customers using a heart-shaped cake product for Valentine’s Day cakes. The video increased sales of that product by 287.5% year over year compared with its sales growth for that product in 2019 when it did not use Reels. CakeSafe has 45,400 followers on Instagram as of publication.

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We’re prioritizing Reels because of the Instagram algorithm,” Moreschi says. “IGTV is still working well for us but not quite as good as Reels.” Instagram’s algorithm changes often and it currently favors users who post Reels, she says.

In addition, CakeSafe uses the Ecwid ecommerce platform to manage its other advertisements such as Google Shopping. For every $1 it has spent on Google Shopping ads, it received $16.48 in sales. That peaked at $19 during the holidays, while the lowest was $5 during the height of the pandemic in spring, she says.

“When you compare that ad spend versus revenue, that’s still incredible. In reality, $5 is still amazing,” Moreschi says.

Ecwid also enables the retailer to customize cart-abandonment emails, of which it has sent about 4,200 in the last year. From those, it generated $147,000 in online sales. The Ecwid platform pricing ranges from free to up to $99 per month.

“We don’t even offer coupon codes in that,” Moreschi says. “We encourage people to get their order to $49 for free shipping.”

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These tactics all helped CakeSafe match its 2019 sales, which Moreschi says is incredible. “April was terrible. A few other months were just abysmal,” she says. “But matching 2019 when we were doing great is a good feat during a pandemic since we really rallied.”

And it had a positive holiday season, she says, where it roughly matched 2019 despite a tough year. For the 2020 holidays, its AOV was $105, its conversion rate was 2.57% and it had 344 orders. This is compared with the 2019 holiday season when its average order value was $103, its conversion rate was 3.75% and it had about 427 orders.

Where CakeSafe really shined was in growing its social media sales. In 2020, 12.81% of its sales came from social, which is an 84% increase from 6.93% in 2019.

“When you add in the fact that our social media ad spend in 2020 was 22% less than in 2019, it shows that the change in marketing style makes a drastic difference. This boost in social media sales is mainly from our organic presence and posts, not social ads,” Moreschi says.

CakeSafe’s conversion rate in general nearly matched 2019. In 2020, it was 2.33%, while in 2019 it was 2.36%.

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“I’m really excited for COVID to be over,” Moreschi says. She says she has so many plans for IG Reels and YouTube videos once everyone is back together in its headquarters.

“People love our behind-the-scenes content and we’ve doubled our headquarters,” she says. “I’m excited to film new videos for YouTube. I have a list of videos for YouTube and then I take clips for Reels and IGTV. I want to hit the ground running with video.”

Julia Rose Boston’s conversion rate is in the details

Julia Rose Boston sells luxury handbags—such as Hermes, Chanel and Louis Vuitton brands—via Instagram as its main selling platform through direct messages.

Founder Carney was a collector of designer items and created the business to sell some of her designer accessories.

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“The other thing that I noticed is that there wasn’t really representation for my size in the luxury space, and I’m plus,” Carney says. “I would buy something that was advertised as a cross-body bag, and it wouldn’t go over my bust. When you spend a couple grand on something, you want it to actually work.”

This underserved area of the market was a focus for Carney, who wanted her Instagram store to be inclusive and accessible for women of all sizes for products that are typically marketed as very exclusive, she says. The Julia Rose Boston customer is typically women age 35-65 who mainly live on the coasts or in the south. The retailer has 153,000 followers on its Instagram as of publication.

“We have a really focused market and buyer. We try to find products that cater to that buyer,” Carney says.

The luxury retailer sells a mix of both new products and consignment, in which a consumer submits a bag to Julia Rose Boston to sell and she gets a cut of the sales. The retailer uses a sliding scale: for a product less than $500, the consigner gets $150; for a $500-$1,500 product, the consigner gets 25%; for $1,500-$3,000 product, 20%; and for a product more than $3,000, 15%. All products are sold without a ton of wear and are authentic, Carney says.

Julia Rose Boston has a “Curvy try on” highlights section on its Instagram to show how bags look on a plus-size or curvy model.

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Using Instagram Stories, Julia Rose Boston unboxes products to show off all the details and has a variety of women of all body types modeling the products.

“It’s hard to feel confident to buy something that’s $8,000 and buy from static photos,” Carney says. “We try to educate people about the products—such as current fashion trends, a change in a brand’s strategy or if the bag is going to go up in price soon in the larger market—whether they’re buying it or not. People feel empowered by that and we break it down and make it accessible for people.”

Julia Rose Boston also gets to know its buyers. “We spend a lot of time focusing on our demographic, and that really helps with our conversion rate because it’s the same person buying.”

Its conversion rate increased 42% between Sept. 1, 2020 and March 10, 2021, to 1.6%, which helped it generate more than $10 million in revenue during that time period.

By channel, its conversion rate during this time period was 4.9% for direct traffic, 2.% for email traffic, 1.7% for organic search and 1.6% for referral traffic.

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Promoting a luxury business was tricky, however, when COVID-19 hit. But Julia Rose Boston says its sales were “crazy.” The retailer found many consumers had discretionary spending money.

Its sales volume increased 176% in 2020 year over year and its average order value increased to $1,600 in the last nine months. Plus, Julia Rose Boston has fulfilled more than 13,000 orders in the last 15 months.

“We tried to take advantage of the sense of connectedness that people wanted,” Carney says. “Social media has been important in a time of social distancing. We were in this with them. In contrast to other retailers, we show our faces, we are very much present. We try to foster that community and connection with our buyers.”

But it still felt the effects of the pandemic. It had to reduce its already small staff and struggled with supply chain issues as well.

One of its initiatives while navigating the pandemic, however, was to finally invest in an ecommerce website, built on Ecwid’s ecommerce platform. As the Instagram algorithm changes frequently, Carney says it’s not a good idea to continue building a business on a platform in which she has little control.

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So far, Instagram generates sales for Julia Rose Boston and continues to grow. “But who knows where it’s going to be and what people might gravitate toward? We’re just being nimble and more adaptable, so driving traffic to a site might be better in general,” Carney says.

Julia Rose Boston continues to make sales via Instagram direct messages but has found success in driving shoppers to a product page on its new ecommerce site where there is a user-friendly checkout process, she says.

An ecommerce website will not stop the retailer from posting and sharing detailed Instagram Stories, Reels and posts.

“The business will continue to be personalized and to represent the type of person we serve,” Carney says. “I want to find more innovative ways to meet unmet areas in the luxury market. I’m really passionate about representing women of real size.”

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