When New Pioneer Food Co-op launched a virtual market in May, they knew they’d be able to reach their regular shoppers. What they didn’t entirely expect was that a whole bunch of new customers would log on to the site.
“The traffic is far and above what we imagined,” said Amy Hospodarsky, New Pioneer’s brand manager.
The market lives on a new webpage, newpimarket.com, but traffic on New Pi’s main site recently increased as well. Hospodarsky said the “Meet the Locals” section on newpi.coop now sees as much as 30 times the amount of traffic it did before the pandemic — something she attributes to an uptick in interest in buying local.
“It really reaffirms the idea that we’re fortunate to live in a community that supports local farmers and restaurants,” she said.
The Iowa City-based grocer, with three physical stores in Cedar Rapids, Coralville and Iowa City, sells products made by local farmers and vendors — many of whom are the same vendors Cedar Rapids and Iowa City area residents are accustomed to seeing at area farmers markets. New Pi doesn’t host their own outdoor market, but Hospodarsky was worried that their vendors might lose business because area farmers markets look so different this summer, with roped off entrances and no seating areas. The New Pi Virtual Market was created with the hope that it might fill that gap in sales.
“We want to shine a light on these producers even if people can’t go to a ‘normal’ market,” she said.
Through photos and information about the people behind the products, the New Pi Virtual Market attempts to re-create the experience of strolling through a relaxed market and the “quintessential Iowa” experience of meeting the people who grow your food. Items purchased from the market can be picked up curbside, just like other groceries.
When it came to creating the web site to host the market, the small company didn’t have a ton of resources other than a staff member who was familiar with creating websites. “We just decided we were going to go for it,” Hospodarsky said.
Being willing to try new virtual things has been crucial for keeping up with digital demands, according to Hospodarksy. New Pi’s online orders have increased dramatically since March, going from about 15 orders a day to more than 300 between its three locations.
As the demand for online services of all kinds has grown, Hospodarsky said New Pi staff has stuck to a simple principle when deciding how to respond. “What guides us is who we are and what we usually do. We want to help people appreciate local food,” she said.
This notion has helped Hospodarsky focus her efforts even when the options for creating online content may seem endless. Much of the new content she’s creating is “passive,” meaning it doesn’t require people to get online at specified times. “We thought about shifting more events to a digital format, but wondered if people are ‘Zoomed out.’ I think the answer is yes,” Hospodarsky said.
Instead, she’s adding more recipes — something many people have asked for as they’ve been cooking more at home. She’s also working on adding videos that can be watched anytime, including an upcoming lesson from a cheese specialist (a job title Hospodarsky said she envies), which will teach shoppers how to create a charcuterie tray.
She’s also considering adding a small number of online classes that will focus on local farmers, vendors, and natural foods — the same things the store has always emphasized. Hospodarsky said she’s still figuring out how to create a good variety of digital content while avoiding the trappings of going virtual just for the sake of going virtual. “If you’re still trying to figure it out, you’re definitely not alone,” she said.
Quotes on going virtual
“Indeed, the spread of ‘virtual’ communities on the Internet speaks to a deep hunger to reach out to others.” — Stephanie Coontz
“Ease of navigation is important in both physical and virtual space.” — John Quelch
“We all live every day in virtual environments, defined by our ideas.” — Michael Crichton
Books on going virtual
The Future Is Faster Than You Think: How Converging Technologies Are Disrupting Business, Industries, and Our Lives by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler
Influencer: Building Your Personal Brand in the Age of Social Media by Brittany Hennessy
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