Touchless Transactions: E-commerce Guidance for Rural Business Managers Considering Online Sales

You’ve got greenhouses full of crops. You’ve got a refrigerator full of meat. You’ve got a field full of fruits and vegetables. Your local, regular market is saturated or currently not available (i.e. pandemic stay-at-home orders). What are you going to do?

Whether your business is a garden center, a direct-to-consumer family farm, a clothing shop on main street, fruit or vegetable stand, or anything in between, this season may seem challenging to get your products into the hands of consumers, due to the national social distancing recommendations for COVID-19. If your business is open it will be critical to clearly and regularly communicate how you are addressing CDC recommendations in order to keep your customers and employees safe. Moving toward online, touchless transactions is becoming ever more essential and, fortunately, have become easy to implement. Touchless transactions in an online space can seem intimidating if you don’t regularly conduct exchanges this way or haven’t already established your online presence. But, they are possible and can be a simple (and profitable) addition to your business strategy to keep things moving, even during times of social distancing.

Remember, people need your products now, more than ever, while their lives are disrupted from normal routines. Join the e-commerce space and continue to grow your business with these three easy steps.

Step 1: Think through where your customers are online and how best to help them find your products.

  • Questions you might ask yourself are: Where are my customers currently – on my website? On my Facebook page? On my email list? Depending on the answer to this question, you may choose a different path.
    • If your website is already established and customers view it for updates, look for easy integrations like adding Shopify, Square, Amazon, WooCommerce (if your website is based in WordPress), Authorize.net (if WordPress based), Wix Stores (if Wix based), etc. Some things to consider through this path are the cost of payment processing in addition to website hosting, what level of security is there for customer information, and what is the inventory management system.
    • If your customers are primarily on your Facebook page, consider adding a “Shop” tab to your business page, which can use PayPal or Stripe as payment.

      Other options for customers on Facebook are checking out via another website, “messaging” to purchase, or integrating a tool like Venmo or Cash (peer-to-peer payment) into Facebook Messenger. If you already have an existing online storefront, consider directing your customers to that existing platform through Facebook links and promotions.

    • If you already have an existing point-of-sale (POS) system in your brick and mortar store, such as PayPal, Square Reader, or Stripe, consider expanding those capabilities through online payment processing. Things to consider with this method are the fees for building a website platform for the POS to live, time to build the platform, and how you will manage inventory.
    • If you have and cultivate an email list, you could conduct email ordering like a modern-day catalog. Customers could reach out to you directly through your preferential communication method (phone, email, text, etc.) with needed products. Things to consider for this are the time spent doing this process, the current invoicing system, and how the payment will occur. This could be a successful option for businesses wanting to keep costs of conducting online sales low.

Step 2: Follow best practices for online sales.

You may be thinking, “Following best practices seems easy enough, but what exactly are those practices?”. Cue all of our CREE content.

More specifically to online sales, start out by focusing on only a few products and take these to the next level. You want to be sure to:

  • Gather multiple images of each product. Show it in different lighting, different settings, different poses. Let the photos do the talking for how your product can be used in different instances.
  • Show the product from multiple angles. Customers want to see every angle possible as if they were right there in the store examining your product. Leave nothing up to the imagination! Often, comparing a product to another object or product can help customers envision the product clearly.
  • Provide long, useful descriptions with lots of product details. Educating customers and providing guidance on how to care for or use the product will give them confidence in the purchase. If you’re selling plants, how big do they get, what kind of light, water, and nutrients do they need to thrive? If it is food, how do they preserve and prepare it, suggest recipes. If it is clothing, how do you launder it and are there multiple ways to style it?  
  • Record instructional videos. Do you usually provide customers with how-to’s or extra information while they purchase in your store? Add it to your online gallery to supplement the product pictures and details.
  • Consider offering FaceTime or Zoom shopping appointments with a knowledgeable staff member to facilitate real-time decisions.
  • For extra inspiration to customers viewing products online, highlight user-generated content to show how products can be used in different ways. Not only does this provide even more information to customers viewing a product, it provides your business with extra options for social-media content. Be sure to get permission from customers before posting.
  • Specifically related to COVID-19, think of how your product could benefit those who are cooped up at home right now or why your customers need the product. Identify what your customer, or potential customer, needs. For example, horticultural products from a garden center can provide a multitude of health benefits to people of all ages, including families now homeschooling. Encourage gardening as science and art lessons as well as for food production and aesthetic enjoyment!
  • Finally, think about the full experience of shopping in your business. What do you see? What do you feel? What do you smell? What do you hear? Back to our garden center example, if your greenhouse or storefront is filled with the smell of petunias, lilacs, or tomatoes, describe that to customers. Give them all of the aspects they would experience if they were shopping your business in person. This can be posted through images, videos, product descriptions, emails, or social-media content. Narrate what is happening at your business.

Some things to remember are that even in a pandemic situation, customers have expectations:

  • Excellent photos, ability to “see” the merchandise, people interacting with product
  • Selection of product options
  • Product price and quality
  • On-time, quick delivery, shipping charges
    • This may not be as much in your control as shipping businesses cut back, so be clear with delivery expectations in your communication with customers.
  • Return policies, terms of sale, money-back guarantee
  • Good customer reviews
  • Service after sale
  • Awareness of online sales in the specific product area
  • Suggested care, information about after-sale
  • Website security, trust
  • Loyalty program

Lastly, who can you get to help you with taking photos, writing descriptions, and uploading content into your online sales platform? Can you train current employees or harness a community member with appropriate expertise? Look for your local resources to help you get this off the ground.

Step 3: Consider how customers will obtain purchases.

  • Questions you might ask yourself are: Will you deliver products to their doorstep? Will they do a quick curbside pick-up at the store, delivered to the back of their vehicle? Are you shipping their products with a mail or parcel delivery vendor?
    • In all, remind customers of your cleanliness practices and that they may still walk in the store (if the business is essential, as in garden centers and grocery stores), keeping in mind recommended social distancing practices and personal hygiene.
    • If they need to pay at a counter-based POS, have disinfecting wipes adjacent, and wipe down and surfaces touched before they approach and after the sale (between customers). Adding a plexiglass divider between the customer and cashier provides a high level of separation and indicates your commitment to health and safety for all. If you can make hand-washing stations available throughout the store, that may encourage customers to maintain personal hygiene.
    • If you are considering having customers come to the store to pick up products, consider using a tool like SignUpGenius or Microsoft Bookings to schedule appointments. By using an arranged schedule, you can minimize the chances of interactions between people. A sign indicating the purchaser’s pre-arranged order could also be helpful in mitigating confusion between scheduled appointments and similar customer orders.
      • Family Tree Nursery (https://www.familytreenursery.com/) has 3 locations in the Kansas City metro area. They adapted quickly by shifting employees to work related to developing an online sales presence. They offer in-store appointments (45 minutes each, for social distancing), curbside pickup with online order, and phone orders. Online sales information and adherence to CDC guidelines is clearly indicated in their Instagram and Facebook posts in positive ways.Screen Shot 2020-04-22 at 11.52.16 AM
    • Shipping directly to the customer: Consider how you will package your product. 
      • Plants: Live plants may require very specific cardboard boxes (and green-side up labeling!) designed to accommodate the plant and keep it in place during rough and tumble shipping. You may also want to include a card with information on how to care for the plants upon arrival: unpack as quickly as possible, water, etc. Costa Farms in Miami, Florida  is a wholesale grower selling plants on Amazon.com (just one outlet of many!). The very first review on a product entry for a houseplant on Amazon described the sad state of the shipping box, but the un-touched status of the plant inside due to an included bamboo stake. Consider what it will take to help your plants survive and perhaps test shipping practices by sending a plant to a friend across the country. This may be more than you bargained for right now.
      • Shipping prices will vary depending on your location and your consumer’s location. Calculating this may seem challenging but several online sale platforms integrate a calculator to estimate shipping costs at checkout (SquareSpace is one example of an integrated feature). Another example, WooCommerce, has an option allowing you to calculate the shipping costs based on weight and/or cart total. You will need to determine how you will pack and ship your products in a way that is convenient for both you and the end-user.
    • Delivering to customers homes:
      • Consider your capacity (staff time, equipment)  to offer home delivery.
      • Will there be a minimum order?
      • Will all items be available for “driveway delivery” or only certain items?
      • Encourage customers in areas with coordinated communications such as Nextdoor or a Homeowner’s Association Facebook group to submit several orders at once. If they know a truck is on the way, it’s likely more folks will join in and you’ll get more sales.

Remember, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Get your products up for customers to see and order. Keep working at filling in the details in the meantime. Businesses that are able to adapt will likely thrive in this new economy. 

How are you handling online sales with your business? Are you considering any of these options or another alternative? Let us know what is working for you! 

Disclaimer: We, and our respective educational institutions, are not endorsing any of these products or services nor do we receive money for mentioning them. These are the tools and resources we are aware of – there are likely others that also work well, and we encourage you to try them out and let us know, so we can update our guidance for other folks who are in the trenches with you.

 For further learning opportunities, we recommend:

Leave a Reply