Whole Foods Market did over $11 billion in sales last year, and it fulfilled precisely none of that earthy goodness online. You’ll find plenty of legume salad recipes on the Whole Foods site, but if you want to actually acquire a bag of organic lentils you’ll be directed to the closest of its 350 stores for the full, sensual Whole Foods experience (recently satirized well by Kelly MacLean in HuffPo, a worthy successor to Dj Dave’s It’s Getting Real in the Whole Foods Parking Lot).
Jon Polin and Richard Demb saw the strong growth of the natural goods market – and the web savviness of the American (sub)urban gentry – as the opportunity to open Abe’s Market, which aims to become the online Whole Foods. The company, based in Chicago for customer-facing roles and Israel for backend/product, has raised about $9 million in two rounds since its 2010 launch, from investors including Accel Partners, Index Ventures and Carmel Ventures.
Polin and Demb knew from the outset that to succeed they’d need to surpass Whole Food’s strong non-perishable product line and then somehow replicate the branding and lifestyle elements that position Whole Foods so well in its upscale market. Organic man does not live on locally grown kale alone.
For an ecommerce site, that means rich content supporting the product offering. “When we first pitched VCs on our plan to directly combine commerce and content, most laughed and branded us ‘unfocused’,” recalls Polin. “At that point, most VCs were locked into thinking that consumer internet services had to fall into one of the three C buckets: commerce, content or community. We were convinced that for the particular opportunity we wanted to tackle, that simply wasn’t true.”
Three years later, many signs suggest that Polin and Demb – and the investors who shared their vision – were right. Sales are growing 100% year over year, and Abe’s self-measured Net Promoter Score is 78 (Amazon, by comparison, has a NPS of 69). They attribute this to executing on the three elements Brian Garrett names as essential to succeeding in ecommerce: branding, exclusivity (more than half of the products Abe’s offers are independently produced and not available on Amazon), and constantly improving their execution on unit economics.
They primarily invest in brand through a warm buying experience (very cute boxes) and elegantly conveyed informational content. Content alongside product has been working so well for them, in fact, that they’ve now nearly collapsed the distinction: the Abe’s Market site feels more like an online magazine than a traditional ecommerce merchant site. They recently hired Ari Bendersky, a trained journalist and former Rollingstone.com and Eater Chicago editor, to run the show as Director of Content.
Polin explains why he believes their niche works so well with content: “The organic and natural market is still young, in the process of going mainstream, and there’s a huge and growing need to learn about healthier living. We’re not selling commodity products. They are part of a lifestyle and people want to be educated about it. This market needs some leadership players on the content end and there’s no reason one of them can’t also be a commerce site.”
Their approach is to closely tie the benefits of the various product categories with the products in that category that Abe’s carries. For example, October is themed ‘Harvest’ with a feature on ‘The Power of the Pomegranate’. Their post on the health benefits of the red, seed-happy fruit intersperses links to WebMD, Men’s Fitness and Women’s Health with links to Abe’s products – and makes it extremely easy to add those products to your shopping cart. So if you’re at all convinced – even momentarily – that pomegranates will keep your cholesterol down as claimed, lower LDL is just one click away.
Likewise recipes: Abe’s publishes a couple SEO-friendly and distribution-friendly recipes a day, alongside inviting high-resolution photos of the finished product. The cranberry chutney turkey burgers do indeed look scrumptious – and Abe’s hopes the desire they elicit leads you to acquire the ingredients then and there.
Content driving ecommerce isn’t new, of course, but we’re mostly familiar with it from the apparel and fashion sphere (think Fab, JackThreads, StyleSaint, Nasty Gal, Zady…), where a strong offline pattern of content driving commerce had already been established through, for example, fashion magazines.
Abe’s Market metrics show that customers who navigate to their new magazine-like section The Scoop convert to paid customers at a rate of over 7% – which is over two times their average for leads who don’t see content. New customers who arrived after Abe’s doubled down on content are 10% more likely to repeat buy, and have a 50% higher average order value for the all-important second order that’s a strong indicator of longer-term loyalty.
The first generation of Abe’s Market content focused on telling the personal stories of the 1000+ independent producers in their marketplace. Like Etsy’s Sellers’ Stories, the goal was to help customers form an emotional connection to the “passionate” independent Abe’s sellers. But Polin and Demb found that sellers’ stories didn’t actually work particularly well as a primary sales driver, and that benefits-based messaging converted far better. So now Abe’s sellers, who often have strong domain expertise around their products, are asked to write in some detail about the benefits of those products. These posts form the heart of Abe’s Market content.
Polin acknowledges that “investing in content has a leap of faith component to it” as opposed to the more short-term measurable paid advertising and affiliate programs that Abe’s also runs and directs to commerce pages. They’ve found that paid promotion of content drives real traffic, but it converts at lower rates than the use case ad-to-commerce-to-content, where the branding and relationship elements of the content can seep in with the user fully aware that she’s on a commerce site. That finding also seems to contradict what Refinery29’s Philippe von Borries opined to Erin Griffith awhile ago: “Nobody gives a shit about content from a commerce company.” They apparently do when it comes to lifestyle content, if it’s well produced and helps them build trust with the brand.
So while professionally produced educational and lifestyle content has had a measurably positive impact on Abe’s business, they still aren’t looking for it to drive massive short-term sales gains. The real goal is long term brand building. “Transactional relationships are fleeting,” says Polin. “Someone will merit broad customer trust in the natural and organic market – and that’s the big opportunity we’re pursuing by producing truly helpful content. We want to be that player seven or eight years out, when this is a mature vertical.”
In the meantime, Abe’s is on the long, slow slog toward trying to generate the high sales volume and margins that are necessary to build a winning ecommerce company. Key to that at this point, in their eyes, is getting real in the Abe’s Market content lot.