In June 2016, Amazon launched its new online grocery business in the UK. In many respects, it was only a matter of time: e-commerce has come to dominate bookselling, electronics, auctions, and many other fields that used to follow a brick-and-mortar sales model.

With internet ordering and home delivery widely available, the food and drink industry cannot be accused of being slow on the uptake, but with global merchandisers and online retailers muscling in on their territory, customer retention has become a matter of urgency. For established companies and new players alike, loyalty and satisfaction are more important than they’ve ever been.

Of course, it’s also harder than ever to ensure either – so what can smaller suppliers working in the industry do to stave off the competition?

Churn, churn, churn
It’s certainly an asymmetrical conflict, but if you’re one of these smaller suppliers, don’t be disheartened: e-commerce giants can be taken on – you just need to play them at their own game. Amazon made its name through capturing data, interpreting it, and using it to personalise service and predict customer behaviour. With the volume of unused information many of them are already accumulating, there’s no reason smaller outfits can’t do the same.

Technology plays an important role here, but a change of mentality is also necessary. In business, a certain level of customer churn is generally taken as a given. In many respects, it is, but be wary of ceding too much of your target audience to inevitability. A consumer doesn’t abandon a brand for no reason, and if you can address or pre-empt their concerns, you’ll have a distinct advantage.
Big data, big opportunities

That said, if food and drink companies want to create a transparent, data-driven window into your customers’ behaviour and preferences, software certainly helps. When you can forecast action based on historical information – on a wider level and as it pertains to individual customers – you stand a better chance of keeping your key relationships intact.

By analysing interactions and buying patterns, it’s possible to do this. If a customer regularly purchases French fries in high volume, the right technology can let you know about it. This isn’t, in and of itself, remarkable. But let’s say they mainly buy these fries at a specific time or only in specific contexts. This is vital information for proactive, targeted selling – but at the end of the day, salespeople aren’t mind readers. They can’t be expected to simply ‘guess’ when a customer might be in the market for a particular item.
This is where technology really comes into its own. The right software collects and analyses the relevant data around your customers’ behaviour, and allows you to pre-empt when these specific buying patterns occur – whether biweekly, seasonal, or even annually. In turn, you as the salesperson have the opportunity to approach the customer with bargains and special offers in advance of the routine purchase: maybe a cross-selling opportunity with certain barbecue foods and snacks, or a well-timed discount voucher arriving on Friday morning. When customers know you’ll always offer them the best possible deal, they’ll be less inclined to leave – and if they begin to drop off in purchases and interactions, you’ll know about it before they do.

Technology can also empower you to know what’s happening in a broader, market-wide sense: if there’s a sudden uptick in sales of certain ingredients among your customers, the right software can ensure that you don’t miss out on the trend.

The major advantage of e-commerce companies is that they make it as easy as possible: one-click ordering, same day delivery, a vast range of products from a vast, global network of stores and warehouses. They present daunting opposition for food and drink companies, but don’t think for a second that you can’t fight them on those terms. With the right tools and the right attitude, you can protect – and expand – your market share.

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