February 27, 2020

Selling Coffee Online: A Guide For Roasters


You operate a successful roastery, providing a variety of carefully selected, high-quality roasts to a diverse range of customers. However, you’ve been thinking about expanding your reach across the country, and possibly to other continents. The best way to do this would undoubtedly be by starting an online store.

According to market research firm eMarketer, global e-commerce sales are expected to reach US $5 trillion by 2021, making it a lucrative way to generate sales. But where and how does specialty coffee roasting fit into this market? More specifically, how can you plan, set-up, and run an online store successfully?

Read on to learn more about how to begin and grow your online store.

Lee este artículo en español Vender Café Por Internet: Guía Para Tostadores

Roaster roasting coffee for online orders

A roaster examines a coffee bean sample at Jubilee Coffee, Colorado, USA. Credit: Devon Barker

It All Starts With Online Branding

Before you can begin selling your roasts online, your business must have a distinct and recognisable brand to help it stand out from the other online stores, and communicate what your business is about to your audience. It’s also your opportunity to communicate your identity and values to them. If your business doesn’t currently have one, you need to create one.

Jerad Howard is the owner of Vesta Coffee, a Las Vegas café, retail, and wholesale specialty coffee roaster. He says a having an image “unique to your brand and offering” is essential to your online store’s identity, and that it’s important to “have a brand that people can identify with, [to] understand the way we talk about different flavour notes, the coffees we source, and the stories behind those. These are all important things for e-commerce.”

An important element of this will be ensuring your brand communicates the elements that appeal to its audience. In today’s specialty coffee scene, it means focusing on the 19 to 34 year old demographic, who are the dominant market when it comes to coffee consumption. You’ll need to conduct more research on the specific desires of your local audience.

While the tastes and spending habits of your audience can’t be generalised, current trends exist in the specialty coffee industry that are worth observing. There’s a focus on creating a more sustainable supply chain, and audiences are responding to it. When creating your own online store, you should document and communicate the actions your roastery is making to positively impact the supply chain, be it travelling to origin or paying price premiums to producers.

When doing so, it’s worth keeping in mind that the millennial demographic wants to be associated with environmental and socially conscious brands, but doesn’t necessarily understand the terminology surrounding sustainability, certification, and trade. Communicating your involvement in a way that’s easily accessible is important when creating your online store.

Birdie Chiu is the Owner of Hazel & Hershey Coffee Roasters in Hong Kong, a business that purchases green coffee beans from around the world and produces ready to grind and brew coffee beans. He says, “From my experiences, word of mouth doesn’t work for online businesses. We’ve started with a Facebook page, and now use Facebook, Instagram and Google Ads. We also pay for Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)… to target our customers.”

You may also like How to Successfully Launch an Online Specialty Coffee Shop

Roasted coffee beans to be sold in-store and online

A package of Jubilee Coffee roasted beans, ready for purchase by a customer. Credit: Devon Barker

Putting Together Your Online Platform 

Your digital platform is going to be the face of your online café. Cafés must pay rent and be physically appealing in order to attract passing foot traffic and generate in-store purchases. Digital platforms are no different. Online stores must be built and maintained using digital tools, and should create appealing content to attract virtual traffic and eventual sales. Software solutions such as Shopify, Squarespace, and Wix are some of the options you can choose from.

Jerad recommends a “simple and easy to use software solution that works well via mobile devices… because most people are purchasing on mobile devices now.” Research indicates that an increasing volume of website traffic now comes from smartphones and tablets, instead of desktop computers.

Once you’ve set up your store, you can start bringing awareness to it through a pre-launch campaign. This will make your existing and potential base aware of your plans and what they can expect your store to deliver. Social media is a great way to communicate this, as well as to receive feedback and understand what your followers want from your online store. 

Building a launch page on your website can also generate excitement and give you information which you can use to decide if you want to offer a pre-order option, as it could help you forecast how much you should roast. Offering limited availability coffees could also push your followers to secure a purchase in advance, while also generating you an income prior to your launch.

Understanding and deciding which payment processes is important, as customers respond to secure payment options, and are less price-sensitive when offered convenient ways of paying. Depending on your budget and objectives, this decision will depend on your pricing strategy. Most payment processors, such as PayPal and Square, charge fees for each transaction, or request a flat monthly fee. 

Setting up an online store in its entirety can take time, and the web development, SEO, and design required might involve expertise you don’t have. In this case, Birdie says, “Select your online platform carefully, pay reasonable fees to hire an expert to set up your online store, and focus on your business.”

A new Probat Roaster at Café San Rafael, Honduras. Credit: Gisselle Guerra

Managing Your Supply 

Your approach to managing your coffee supply will be different than in a café. While cafés cater to a local market, online stores cover the entire world, and therefore sales can be wildly unpredictable. To help predict demand, you should make use of digital analytics to track and analyse website traffic, sales, and marketing trends to get a better idea of the quantities and types of coffee your audience is more likely to purchase.

As mentioned above, offering pre-orders is a great way to see what your supply will be like at inception. However, once you find your groove online, a safe and secure growth model could be offering subscriptions, as this can allow you to accurately predict supply and ensure financial stability. 

Jerad admits that Vesta Coffee Roasters are fortunate to “always have fresh coffee roasted.” This isn’t always the case if you’re a smaller roaster. Instead, you can help foresee demand through setting a weekly roasting schedule, as this will help you plan ahead and let your customers know when they can expect freshly roasted coffee.

Deciphering your future needs as accurately as possible will help you ensure your business is never under or overstocked. However, for your long term success, there are internal and external factors you’ll need to consider that will impact the sustainability and growth of your e-commerce platform.

A Giesen coffee roaster awaits its next batch of beans. Credit: Miguel Regalado

Ensuring Future Sustainability 

It’s natural that you’d want your online store to be a success. One way that you can increase the odds of it succeeding is to take measures to ensure it remains sustainable in terms of supply, as well ensuring that your business practices are as cost-effective and efficient as possible. 

External sustainability refers to the efforts you make outside your roastery and across the supply chain to improve your operational efficiency and your store’s growth. Having strong relationships with producers and/or importers will allow you to better plan and organise what coffee is available. It will also help you translate your supply chain experience into a brand experience your customers can appreciate. 

Internal sustainability refers to the practices within your roastery that will help you operate more efficiently, and possibly save money. These efforts can help reduce your operational costs and set more environmentally friendly standards in your business. For example, it could involve reducing single-use items or using hermetic storage. It can also involve investing in recyclable product packaging.

Sebastiaan van der Lee is the Owner of Independent Coffee Roasters in The Netherlands, and operates a roastery in Sittard. To keep his operating costs low and be more environmentally sustainable, he reuses cardboard boxes or collects existing ones from supermarkets. For larger customer orders, he asks them if he can supply the order in reusable buckets.

Roasted coffee beans sold in-store and online

A range of coffee beans and merchandise displayed at D·Origen Coffee Roasters, Spain. Credit: Julio Guevara

Managing Storage, Transportation, & Complaints 

A reality of operating an online store serving international customers is that you’ll need to find a way to transport and package your products to them quickly and safely. Understanding your local carrier options and their charges is essential, as these costs can quickly add-up according to postage and weight, so it’s crucial to get it worked out before advertising it to your customers.

Currently, Hazel & Hershey Coffee Roasters supply coffee wholesale to China, Cambodia, Singapore, and the Philippines. They also ship worldwide via FedEx and DHL, and for bigger orders, sea or air freight. Sebastiaan recommends offering weekly drop shipments, as you can gather orders and process them together. He says that “as you grow, you can increase your shipping days. Loyal customers will wait a few days for quality products.”

It’s a reality that even with the best service provider, your products could be opened or lost in transit, and your business will need a plan to handle this. Options for this can include adding a website disclaimer stating that your roastery can’t be held responsible for mishaps, or covering the charges. Birdie says, “For online complaints, most of the issues can be solved after investigation. Less than 0.1% can’t be solved, and we refund 100% of these as a last resort.”

As your reach grows, you might find that you have to expand your operations and team. Having a long-term plan that allows room for growth – even in your beginning stages – will allow you to plan accordingly. You’ll need to put together a strong team committed to roasting and packaging high-quality coffee. Quality and consistency is part of maintaining a reputable online store, so make sure you only seek out and retain experienced roasters to maintain and build your credibility online.

Organic Blend and Panama Microlot roast coffee beans for sale at D·Origen Coffee Roasters, Spain. Credit: Julio Guevara

Starting your own roastery wasn’t easy, and you probably experienced many challenges along the way. If there’s one thing operating an online store has in common with operating one in real life, it’s that long term success will require plenty of time and effort.

Allow your online roastery business the space to learn and grow, and you could reap the rewards for many years into the future.

Enjoyed this? Then Read Exploring Millennial Trends in Specialty Coffee

Feature photo caption: Behind the scenes at Café San Rafael, Honduras. Feature photo credit: Gisselle Guerra

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