From on-shelf to on-line: Promoting food and beverage during COVID-19
From ordering dinner in, to the sourdough bread baking craze, COVID-19 has changed how Canadians are spending their food and beverage dollars. Heidi Kim delivers the top tips to help companies make the most of the virtual shift.


The pandemic has changed consumer spending habits, and this has hit small businesses hard — including entrepreneurial food and beverage companies across North America.
 
Yes, grocery stores report increased sales, but the data are deceptively optimistic. The reality: many retailers are reducing the number of products they carry, focusing on inventory that drives sales. Smaller companies risk being left off the shelves — when they can least afford it.
 
There is one piece of good news from the pandemic. It’s the rapid development of opportunities to do business online. Here are Argyle’s tips to help food and beverage companies navigate the virtual business landscape.
 
1. Make the most of free online resources 
Associations and organizations are offering more online training and conferences than ever before — some available for members only, others on open and free platforms.
 
For example, the Specialty Food Association offers a free webinar series to its members, covering a wide range of topics from business planning and e-commerce to connecting with buyers during the pandemic. Trade organizations, such as the Southern United States Trade Association and Export Development Canada, are hosting informative webinars and virtual events to support small food and beverage businesses.
 
With so many organizations publishing free online resources, the world is your oyster. But free doesn’t always mean it’s right for you. When assessing virtual learning opportunities, trust your instincts. If the content isn’t relevant to your business, move on.
 
2. Consider virtual trade shows
Trade shows in 2020 have one thing in common — postponements and cancellations (ok, maybe two things). With no end in sight, trade show organizers are pivoting to virtual formats. This represents a lower-cost opportunity to connect with buyers — without the costs of travel, show design and staffing.
 
Two leading food shows, SIAL Canada and CHFA Connect, went virtual — with considerable success. Although their platforms varied slightly, visitors were able to see exhibitor information, download documents and engage in one-on-one communication with exhibitors.

 
If you’re ready to try a virtual trade show, check out GIC Live, the alternative event to Grocery Innovations Canada. Or, visit one first to see if the format is right for you. One of the greatest advantages of the virtual format is that you can collect data about visitors and their interests. If you decide to participate in an event as a paid exhibitor, be sure to take advantage of the tools and analytics to better understand your target audience.
 
3. Grow your business online
According to Statistics Canada, e-commerce sales reached a record $3.9 billion in May 2020, more than double the amount in May 2019. Although most consumers still prefer the in-store grocery experience, the pandemic has forced many to become more comfortable with grocery shopping online and via mobile apps. Retailers are paying attention, and companies like Sobeys and Metro have introduced new shopping delivery services.
 
With growth in both sales channels and consumer demand, e-commerce is becoming an essential tool for entrepreneurial food businesses. Whether it is by becoming a vendor on Amazon or setting up Shopify stores, consider adding e-commerce or mobile sales to your business. Just make sure you do it right. E-commerce is a platform to sell your products and requires the same level of investment in marketing and advertising as you would make in bricks-and-mortar stores.
 
4. Ensure your website and social media are current
In Canada’s Internet Factbook 2020 report, from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), more than six in ten Canadians indicated that they are more likely to do business with a company that has a website. Although it is hard to imagine a business without one, we have certainly encountered this in our work with small businesses.
 
Make sure your site is mobile-first and incorporates digital best practices. As consumers spend more time online, they are becoming more savvy and have higher expectations for businesses. It’s not enough for brands to simply build a website and be active on social media. These channels are the face of your brand and should portray its promise and values in both creative and content. Add a simple but compelling story about your brand, offer inspiring tips and recipes, and evaluate the look of your channels to ensure they’re current.
 
5. Add a personal touch to your virtual communication
Although we have adapted to our new online reality, we all crave human interaction. Virtual does not mean your customers are not real. Make your interactions with customers as authentic as possible.
 
If you are investing in e-commerce and offering door-to-door delivery services, add a personal thank-you note to the delivery. For B2B sales, send buyers samples along with an invitation to connect via a video call after you have engaged with them at a trade show. Take advantage of your smaller scale to build relationships and warm the hearts of your customers and buyers.
 
 
While the virtual world has made it easier and more efficient to do business, the new landscape comes with new challenges to stay current and make the right connections with consumers. As any good entrepreneur would do, consider all your options but develop a sound strategic business plan that takes into consideration your main target audience, objectives, and goals.
 
Find out how Argyle can help you build your business — in person or online! Contact us at [email protected].
 
 
About the Author:
Heidi Kim is an Account Director on the Agribusiness and International Trade team at Argyle. She specializes in trade relations, B2B matchmaking and trade event planning, and regularly provides consultation to new-to-export companies.

 
Argyle offers unique and specialized expertise in Agribusiness and International Trade (AIT). The AIT team’s guiding principle is to build trade, consumer and influencer confidence with a strong focus on food, beverage and commodity agricultural products, associations, institutions and companies. We are deeply connected with stakeholders in the agri-food sector in Canada. Our work includes trade shows and missions, one-on-one meetings with business decision makers and relevant government officials, customized market orientation services, strategic marketing programs in the food and beverage sector, crisis and issues response and more.

Every relationship starts with a conversation.
Drop us a line and let’s talk.

An Argyle team member will respond personally as soon as possible. If your matter is urgent, please also call us at 416-968-7311 and press “0.”