Real Business is a series of posts that analyses the marketing opportunities and challenges of real businesses in the South East. The interviews are undertaken by Keith Lewis of The Courier.
BIT Spicy.com was formed almost a year ago, but only began trading in September, 2011. The interim period was spent setting up a website and designing and sourcing the elegant packaging that the founders hoped would help them create a foothold in the market for top quality cooking spices and recipes.
The fledgling online business is the joint brainchild of husband and wife team, Liz and Andrew Anderson, both of whom are chartered accountants who also happen to share a passion for eating good restaurant-standard curry dishes. The love of curry and other spicy dishes is more than just a passing fad. "I grew up in Singapore", said Mr Anderson. "It is perfectly normal there to eat curry or spicy dishes at lunchtime, whereas here in the UK people tend to have a particular curry night, either at home or in a curry house, or a take-away at the weekend. Either way, it is invariably something that happens in the evening rather than the daytime. I would like to change that and also to get the message across that ‘spicy' doesn't have to mean ‘hot'."
In true accountant fashion, budgets and projections were produced, setting out best and worst scenarios. All eventualities were considered. No outside finance was required and no employees to worry about either.
But despite all this painstaking preparation and conservative forecasting, the business has been slow to get off the mark. "We think we have good branding and a good website, but even with all the search engine optimisation and our efforts with Facebook and other social media, we are not really seeing the volume of business that we anticipated. I am a surprised by that", commented Mrs Anderson.
The couple took the view at the outset that Bit Spicy products would probably not besuited to Farmers' Markets. Yet it is noteworthy that the most successful selling exercise to date was the Wealden Christmas Fair last December, an experience that has encouraged the couple to consider other seasonal events, such as this year's forthcoming summer markets. Friends, too, have been complimentary and customers tend to come back once they have sampled the products. But both admit that word-of-mouth recommendation, while good, is slow to gather momentum.
"We only have one problem at the moment - marketing, that is if we are going to make any real money out of it", said Mr Anderson. "We have a premium product with guaranteed quality. We just don't have the budget to mount a big campaign or to invest in infrastructure. An outside investor might enable us to do both if the volume was there. At the moment we can produce 1,000 units per week - that is grinding, mixing and packaging the spices that we buy from importers to sell to our customers."
The Marketing Eye says:
First of all we have to ask, is there a business in Andrew and Liz's passion? The answer is clearly ‘yes'. There are plenty of businesses out there offering similar products, so we know there is a demand.
So why isn't it working? There are a number of reasons.
First of all, this is an e-commerce business, which means the website needs to sell from the start. BitSpicy.com relegates the shop to the 5th item in the navigation. Lead offers and a clear invitation to buy must scream out from the Home page.
Secondly, when I do find the shop, it is not clear what I get for my money. If I'm convinced to try the 3 Chilli Phall Challenge, what do I get for my £15? 1 packet of curry mix?
Andrew and Liz need to examine the website analytics. What proportion of visitors proceed to buy, how many abandon their shopping cart? They need to get these aspects of the site working before investing in attracting more visitors.
They are doing many of the right things on promotion by creating interesting content, but have fallen into the trap of believing that creating content is enough. They need to promote it hard. Facebook advertising is the huge and obvious opportunity here, as is Google Adwords.
The articles that are being written need to be taken to the media. Magazines, daytime radio or even lifestyle TV could be interested in short features on how to make an excellent curry in the home. The UK has an insatiable appetite for programmes on cooking and accountants turned curry gurus provides a unique angle for this business.
At the end of the day, the apparent easy option of e-commerce might, however, not be enough. The experience at the Christmas Fair is telling them that traditional retailing is an area to explore. Yes, it's harder, but far less crowded than the internet. Wholesaling, initially to local retailers, is another option. The increased volume and improved brand awareness could more than compensate for the reduced margins.