Hickory Farms uses its email strategy and product line expansion to retain customers it gained during the beginning of the pandemic.

It’s quality, not quantity that counts when it comes to email blasting shoppers. Digital marketers may feel tempted to use outdated email lists to try and hit as many contacts as possible before the holidays, but the tradeoff is a high bounce rate—where the percentage of visitors to a particular website leave after viewing only one page—or by ending up in someone’s spam folder.

Historically, Hickory Farms LLC, a food gift retailer, makes most of its revenue in the last four to six weeks of the year. And its get the average order value and conversion rate to prove it. In 2021, its AOV was 32% higher during the holiday season (October-December) compared with the off-season (January-September). Conversion was 43% higher in that Q4 period compared to the off-season. Hickory Farms declined to provide AOV and conversion rates for 2020 or 2019.

Jen Partin, senior marketing manager, email and SMS, says that because the majority of Hickory Farms’ web sales are at the end of the year, she is careful not to discard consumers that do not open or click on emails the rest of the year.

“If I notice people are not opening or clicking on our emails, I will reduce the number of emails those people get,” Partin says. “Instead of scrubbing those people out and forgetting about them, historical revenue data indicates those subscribers that may look lapsed in our offseason can actually turn out to be highly profitable during the core holiday season.”

The pandemic effect

That four to six weeks of high-volume sales that’s typical over the holiday season dramatically shifted in March 2020 when COVID-19 shut the world down. Hickory Farms became a go-to alternative source for food items that could be delivered to consumers’ doors—a welcomed service during a period of prohibited in-person shopping and food shortages, Partin says. The demand was so intense, the retailer sold out of nearly its entire inventory by May 2020.


And momentum from 2020 continues to pay off, Partin says. As a result of retained customers from pandemic-related shopping, Hickory Farms’ web sales increased 59% in 2021 compared with pre-pandemic 2019.

Besides just the Q4 holidays, Hickory Farms expanded its gift-giving options to include other holidays including Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, to help maintain shopper interest after the initial flush during the pandemic, Partin says. It also introduced a Super Bowl game day package.

Jen Partin, senior marketing manager, email and SMS at Hickory Farms

To capitalize on its newly acquired customers, Hickory Farms invested in Validity’s Everest software platform in August 2020 to minimize email hard bounce rates. Hard bounces, which is when marketers send emails to unknown users, nearly tripled during the lead up to the holidays in 2021 for all of its clients, according to Validity, a data quality and email marketing software platform.


Validity’s Everest uses internet service provider (ISP) information, which includes information such as when users are engaging with their Yahoo, or AOL email accounts, among other varieties of the Verizon network.

The software’s integration feature allows Partin to see when subscribers are reading through their inboxes—and she learned that people pay attention to their email boxes at different times of day, she says. When a person is looking through their email, that’s considered engaging. When someone is engaging their inbox, Partin’s marketing email will appear to be delivered at that moment.

Validity uses proprietary view time optimization (VTO) by Yahoo which is limited to Yahoo and AOL mailboxes. When a sender like Hickory Farms sends an email, the email is placed into a delivery queue and waits until the Yahoo subscriber opens their mailbox, at which time the sender’s queued VTO email is delivered.

“That alone has been a huge driver. We’ve see over 100% lifts and opens from 90-120% open and clicks because of this tool,” Partin says. “When you’re fighting for room in the inbox and you’re sending four emails a day and it’s December 12—you need to figure out how to get noticed.” A favorable lift rate might range from a 20-40% open rate, where people open and click through an email, and is used to determine return on ad spend.


Everest provides Partin dashboards that allow her to see how an email deliverability is performing based on its subject line, or certification performance, which helps ensure an email is delivered to a subscriber’s inbox. Partin says it’s easy to view all the metrics she’s interested in on one dashboard.

Hickory Farms finds potential customers for Canadian group in minutes

Most recently, Partin says the software came in handy when it needed to quickly help the Canadian-based group of Hickory Farms. Before COVID-19, the group set up kiosks in malls to sell products. When physical malls shuttered during the pandemic, Partin says its Canadian group scrambled to find ways to market to its usual customers.

The group provided Partin with a list of customers who had purchased from them within the last year. “I was able to upload that list into Everest and within a couple of minutes, it gave me the results of clean, fresh lists that I knew I could be comfortable emailing,” Partin says.

She achieved this in minutes as opposed to days. Typically, Partin would need to go to another software vendor and create a purchase order and then a waiting period to get that kind of information.


“We were able to take our Canadian group’s products and set them up in our shops for that holiday season,” she says.

The platform gives Partin access to the tools she needs as an email marketer, she says. “To be candid, I’m a team of one right now and having this platform has allowed me to manage our email program completely on my own,” she says.

Hickory Farms is No. 291 of Digital Commerce 360’s Top 1000 report.