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Vaughan Rising Blog: How to Keep Your Business Fruitful Amid Lockdowns and Restrictions

Fruit of the Land is a Vaughan-based retailer and wholesaler that specializes in farm-fresh foods, kosher gift baskets and holiday gifting. They also produce award-winning foods under a family of brands.

Since the first lockdown in March, Fruit of the Land co-founders Michael and Stacey Kurtz have fought to survive in their mall-based locations at Promenade, Vaughan Mills and Bayview Village. As a food retailer, they were an essential service but couldn’t operate as such because the malls were closed. Immediately, they started developing an arsenal of strategies to survive and reach their customers.

Seven important ways to help your business during the pandemic

Stacey shares seven lessons Fruit of the Land has learned along the way.

1. Education is key

At first, Stacey didn’t know where to start in this new pandemic environment. So she devoured all the information she could find.

“The main thing I found in the first lockdown was education was key,” Stacey says. “I just felt like it’s something that none of us have ever experienced and I have to say I attended maybe two webinars a day.

“From Vaughan Economic and Cultural Development to Canadian Grocer, Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Canadian Gift and Tableware Association and the Specialty Food Association in New York City, I really learned a lot. What I learned I tried to implement quickly. It was sort of a race against time to generate business.”

2. Expand online ordering and delivery capacity

Fruit of the Land’s top priority was to majorly expand their online ordering and delivery capacity.

“I really wanted to partner with Instacart and INABUGGY, but they actually never got back to me. I think they were swamped, and we’re actually really small compared to a lot of the people they work with. I tried Uber Eats, but I found that the 30% that they took didn’t work well with our margins,” shares Stacey.

She kept searching and finally found Cornershop. “Cornershop was very helpful in getting us uploaded onto their site. I did also look at our own website. Thankfully, we were already on Shopify, which I highly recommend to any retailer out there. Shopify is very easy to learn and easy to use and not expensive.”

Stacey had learned a lot from the webinars, which she quickly put into practice. “Watching these New York City grocers, in particular the Greene Grape in Brooklyn who really impacted me. They said, ‘just load up your entire store.’

“Before, we had just our unique products, the Kurtz Orchards or the Beit Yitzhak, but I didn’t have the other products and they emphasized it doesn’t have to be a glamour shot – just take a shot on your phone and load it up to Shopify; just make it available. And so I did that. I loaded up the entire store. And that is what really helped me.”

3. Communicate with customers

Stacey’s next step was to connect with customers to let them know what Fruit of the Land was doing. She wanted to announce their launch on Cornershop, and update everyone that the store’s entire collection of products was now available through the store website.

“I sent out email blasts through Mailchimp to communicate with our mailing list – people that I did have the names of – and I wish I had even more names. I encourage people to get customer names. Through email, we let them know we’re available now on Cornershop or by delivery directly to your door.

“My younger son and I got to know the area very well, driving products to people’s doors for contactless delivery. So you know, you have to do what you have to do.”

4. Marketing incentives help spread the word

The next priority was marketing. In addition to the email list, Fruit of the Land ramped up their social media content and supported it with incentives.

“We had one of our best salespeople post videos on Facebook and I gave the staff, especially her, Bette, a code, BETTE10. Customers, when they ordered online, got 10% off if they used her code and that worked for a while.

“We connected on Instagram, and one of our staff who handles our social media had started something on Instagram called Cooking in Pajamas. People were not able to go out, and they were cooking at home so much more. So these cooking videos were really trending, and I wanted to participate in this, so she used our products and we did some live Instagram events.”

Stacey continues, “And then also Bayview Village, one of our malls, picked up on this and promoted this cooking series on their website, so that was fantastic.”

5. Give consumers what they want

Stacey hasn’t just been watching marketing trends. She’s paying close attention to what consumers are buying during the pandemic and giving them what they want.

“Immune-boosting foods were really trending. Meal kits. Pantry staples. So I tried to very quickly adapt and adjust to remain relevant,” Stacey notes. “I developed our own Fruit of the Land honey during the lockdown, and it’s doing really well so we’ll keep it.

“We increased pantry staples. For example, soup mixes became a real staple for us, and I repurposed some of the gift baskets to become breakfast meal kits – and this is based on the new people being at home and wanting meal kits delivered.”

She notes, “Some baskets had to be developed or just renamed because a lot of people were giving gifts for different reasons, like thinking of you, get well soon, I miss you. It didn’t have to be for a holiday.”

6. Be prepared to pivot your strategy on the fly

As case numbers improved through the spring, in-store shopping was allowed again. Fruit of the Land reopened in June with new safety protocols, no samples and a heavier reliance on grab-and-go gift baskets over custom-built ones. Customers were tentative at first, but things felt nearly back to normal by fall.

Then the second wave arrived and, in November, Toronto and Peel Region were locked down again.

Like many retailers, Fruit of the Land makes most of its annual sales leading up to the holiday season and relies on mall pop-up stands for an extra boost.  They had planned to open two stands, both in the City of Toronto. On the fly, they developed a new pop-up strategy.

“So we pivoted and we opened in Oshawa – in Durham – and in Upper Canada Mall – that’s in York region. So, it’s a red zone but we are open, so we are hoping to make up sales,” says Stacey.

7. Diversify your sales channels to reduce risk

Moving forward, Fruit of the Land is also taking steps to diversify their sales channels.

Stacey explains that Fruit of the Land has a “really big focus on online, and we’re looking at more wholesale to continue to balance out the retail business. We are looking at export markets for our Canadian products.

“We have to continue to tweak our stores to remain relevant, but we also need to create some balance between retail, e-tail, wholesale and exports so that we are not so completely dependent on retail; that was our goal from the beginning of this pandemic.”

She continues, noting Fruit of the Land is now “certified by Ontario Made, which was a phenomenal program that was begun by Canadian manufacturers and exporters.

“We approached The Shopping Channel about picking up our lines, because they sell our lines now online, and very thankfully Sobeys has a phenomenal local program about picking up some of our lines that are local. That really helped us.”

To learn more about exporting, Stacey participated in the Trade Accelerator Program, which quickly yielded results with a large order from the US.

Maintaining Resilience in the Face of Challenges

Fruit of the Land has demonstrated a remarkable amount of resilience. Stacey has this advice for other retailers:

“I can’t stress enough the education aspect. There are some amazing webinars out there. Join the mailing lists of Vaughan Economic and Cultural Development, join the Vaughan Chamber of Commerce. They offer so much material. There’s other trade organizations you can look into joining to see what other people are doing, hear their advice.

“We can’t operate the same way that we’ve done before, so the quicker that we realize that and make some quick changes and see what works for us, the quicker that we can adapt and hopefully we’ll all be okay. And to support one another. I really encourage people to support one another.”

Fruit of the Land’s resilience helps ensure they will continue to rise, ready to pivot and innovate as needed to get to the other side.

 

The information presented in this article is provided solely for the purpose of bringing ideas to the attention of the business community, as a service to the businesses of the City of Vaughan.

The City of Vaughan does not, whether directly or indirectly, endorse, sponsor or sanction the opinions expressed in this article, nor any services or products that may be offered by the contributor/s in their normal course of business.  The City of Vaughan does not intend by this article to recommend the contributor/s nor to promote them as subject matter experts over any other business persons employed or engaged in similar lines of business.