Mail order is a term that refers to many different methods of soliciting and/or selling products or services at a distance; where the potential customer is not physically present. The mail order customer learns of and views an item and its description through one or more types of media (either print or electronic) including catalog, direct mail, website, email, television, radio, magazine, newspaper, social media,etc.
A crucial characteristic of mail order advertising or promotion is that the marketing may produce a measurable response and at the same time capture important customer information that can be used to further expand sales opportunities. Another characteristic of mail order is that the order is placed remotely. The order from a customer may be received by the seller through telephone, mail, fax, electronic shopping cart, or email. Finally, fulfillment of physical goods ordered via mail order is done by delivery through a common carrier.
With the availability of toll free telephone numbers, credit card payment, improved packaging and shipping, and the availability of quick delivery service, mail and internet marketing may well be worth considering.
Lastly, the Small Business Administration notes that characteristics of successful mail order business entrepreneurs are: imagination for what will appeal to the customer; persistence because business success is rarely instantaneous; honesty as mail order business is built on trust, satisfied customers, and repeat sales; and thorough knowledge of products as well as the general knowledge gained through this entire process.
This publication describes the advantages and disadvantages for the producer, marketing issues, and tips on how to develop the business. Since mail order is built on repeat business, it may take years to build a substantial income. Plan on going slowly, with mail order being an addition to other existing marketing strategies.
The mail order customer enjoys high quality and is looking for unique specialty products they cannot get elsewhere. In addition, they like to purchase by mail. The ideal mail order product is relatively light weight and ships well. It should also have at least a 100-percent markup over input costs. Dried fruits, nuts, dried herbs and flowers, and processed or value added items such as preserves and herbal sachets are good examples of products that can be shipped by mail order.
Check with your farm advisor on post-harvest handling conditions for your product to see if it is suitable for mail order/internet. Check also with your county extension office to find out if any quarantine requirements apply.
Variety is important in mail order. With the costs of shipping, packaging, and advertising, mail order is an expensive way to market. Variety is one way to increase your average order size. Even if you offer only one product, try to offer choices in price, packaging, size, and variety.
Your sales literature should be attractive and professional looking. Additionally, the ordering instructions should be clear and easy to understand. The homespun farm image does not excuse sloppiness. In mail order, you are competing with large companies like Harry & David and scores of other professional mail order companies for consumers' attention.
You need to look as professional as your budget and creativity will allow. With food, mouth-watering appeal is important. Try one- or two-color brochures with first-rate drawings at first; as your mail order business grows, you may want to try full-color photographs, as well.
Strong money-back guarantees are critical in mail order, since the customers may be thousands of miles away from you. A good quote from a satisfied customer will also help build confidence in your mail order product. To get testimonials, ask customers for their comments, along with permission to quote them if they say something nice about your product.
Many growers get started in mail order by shipping to farm-market customers who request their products by mail. According to many mail order experts, the mailing list is 40 to 60 percent responsible for success in mail order. The best list is your own house list, from customers who have signed the guest book at your farm market or who have placed mail orders with you recently. A 10- or 20-percent house list response is not uncommon, whereas mail order entrepreneurs are happy to get a 2-percent response from a rented mailing list.
Keep close track of what your customers buy, how much they buy, how often, and how much they pay. Customers who were single purchasers during a two-year period, or who never placed an order for more than five dollars, should be placed into a dormant file. This way you still have their contact information to perhaps later send another mailing--but they should be removed from the regularly scheduled mailings.
You likely will have many choices for shipping service providers. When picking a service provider, you should consider: guaranteed delivery in satisfactory condition, immediate record of shipment (with an invoice), pick-up and delivery services, and automatic insurance levels if they lose or damage the package. You should never promise what you can't deliver. Study delivery times and learn how long it takes to get the product from your place to the consumer. Rather than asking customers to study a shipping chart, make it simple to order by figuring out an average shipping rate for your product to anywhere in the U.S.
Shipping durability is of prime importance. Plan on your package going through conveyor belts and being bounced and juggled over thousands of miles. Ask your intended service provider for packaging pointers. Get as strong a box as possible and practicable, preferably a stock item in a standard size (cost savings). Ask the rep for a sample; then pack it and send it to a friend and have it returned to you to see how it holds up. Include a notice on the box saying how the customer may get in touch with you in case of damaged goods or goods delivered in unsatisfactory condition.
Building a Customer Base
Mail order is built on customer trust and repeat business, not on first-time orders. First-rate quality and outstanding service are vital.
Personalize your business by including a picture of yourself and your farm in your brochure and catalog, and include little notes in packages you send out. Throw in a gift certificate, some recipes, or other little something extra with every order. A grateful customer is more likely to order again.
Other customer services you might offer include prompt (same- day) shipping service; custom orders and custom packaging; large-order discounts; special requests (need to split shipment, etc.); free samples on request; and invitations for customer comments. Also put a "bounce-back" into every package, even if it's just an extra business card, catalog, or order form.
An alternative to developing your own mail order business is to sell your product through other mail order companies' catalogs. You will have to sell products at a discount, but this option avoids the costs and risks associated with starting your own mail order business. Some state departments of agriculture publish guides listing producers who sell their products by mail.
The following are some other mail order spin-offs you might consider:
- Offer your products at discount to corporations or hotels, etc., as mail- order gift packages to send to their clients or employees.
- Offer your regular customers a "Product of the Month Club," giving them the chance to send gifts containing a different type of product every month of the year.
Promotion and Advertising
Spend your initial efforts promoting to your list of previous customers, through word-of-mouth, and free publicity channels. Keep careful records of inquiries and mail order sales. A computer database program is invaluable for keeping mail order records.
Put a registration book on your table at county fairs, trade shows, or at your roadside stand to gather names for your mailing list. Make sure your contact and ordering information are written on all your products and sales literature (not just the order form), and have something to send people when they inquire how to get more, such as an informational sheet or a free sample.
One of the best ways to come up with great promotional ideas is to always be aware of what other people are doing for promotions--not only other producers like yourself but other products in your everyday life. Look through newspapers and magazines, get on mailing lists of other companies and monitor what they send you. Keep your eye out when shopping. When you see something that really grabs your attention, save it in a file or write it down. Then take the ideas you find really interesting and apply them to your business situation.
The Internet as a Marketing Tool
The Internet ranks as the most exciting mail order vehicle since the invention of the catalog. It's one of the simplest and fastest ways to reach a national or global audience. Perhaps even better, with your own website, you're on equal footing with the big guys. You can easily compete with larger, more established businesses -- and even look like one yourself -- without spending a fortune.
More and more mail order entrepreneurs are turning to the Internet as a supplement to their catalogs or are forgoing paper catalogs altogether. Potential customers have come to expect companies to have a web presence.
If you plan to have a website, you'll also need to register your domain name, that part of a Web address that comes after the "www" and allows people to access your virtual store. To start your search for and to register a domain name, conduct an Internet search for the phrase "register domain name."
Like everything else in direct marketing, the cost of setting up and maintaining a company website can vary considerably. It is important to research building business websites. You have the option of creating one yourself or hiring a web designer. More information about this can be found on the Agricultural Entrepreneurship blog.
Keep in mind that people who shop online don't like hype. They expect to be informed and entertained, but they don't want to be electronically "shouted at", patronized, or pandered to. (Which you shouldn't do to your other in-person customers either.) Sending requested e-mail updates is good business and fun interacting, but "spamming," or sending junk e-mail, is definitely poor "netiquette". Show your web customers they're important by how you treat them.
Try these tips for winning and keeping Internet mail order customers:
- Give your customers easy ordering access. The order desk must be easily accessible and your contact information must also be easily found--so they can ask questions if they need to.
- Provide alternative ordering methods for customers who are wary about ordering by credit card over the internet.
- Offer these folks order forms they can print out and fax or mail to you. And of course, offer your phone number so they can order by phone if they choose.
- Check and answer your e-mail on a daily basis.
- Update your site frequently.
- Don't frustrate customers with a site that's slow or difficult to figure out. You will quickly lose customers this way.
- Make sure your site is easy to navigate and uncluttered.
- Offer customers information and entertainment. These elements will draw them in, hold their attention, and make them feel you're a part of their world and they're a part of yours. For example, you can post articles or tips.
- Check out competitors' sites, just as you check out competitors' advertising materials. Borrow the best of what they're doing, and then do it better.
For More Information:
- Adams, Terry and Rob. (2003). Start Your Own Mail Order Business. Entrepreneur Magazine's startup.
- Cohen, William E. (1990) Selling by Mail Order. U.S. Small Business Administration. Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service. (1999). Small Farm Digest. Vol 2, No 2. United States Department of Agriculture.
- Gibson, Eric. (1994). Sell What You Sow!: The Grower's Guide to Successful Produce Marketing. New World Publishing.
- Klotz, Jennifer-Claire V. (December 2002). How to Direct-Market Farm Products on the Internet. USDA.
- Muske, G., et. al. (January 2000). The Internet as a Marketing Tool. Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service.
- Ollendyke, Dana. "Building a website for your small business." Agricultural Entrepreneurship blog. 30 Jan. 2015.
- Ollendyke, Dana. "Hiring the right web developer for your business's website, part 1." 13 Mar. 2015.
- Ollendyke, Dana. "Hiring the right web developer for your business's website, part 2." 27 Mar. 2015.
- Schulte, John D. (2004). Mail Order Basics. National Mail Order Association.
- Wolfe, Kent. (May 1999). Tips for Increasing Web Site Traffic. University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service.
Prepared by Jeffrey Hyde, Stacee Meyer, and Dana Ollendyke