By Lydia Dishman
When we last checked in with Richard Demb, cofounder and CEO of Abe's Market, he was telling us why the time is ripe to start a sustainable business. But what he was really pointing out is that the time is now to sell natural and organic products online. He should know.
Abe's Market officially closed a $5 million round of new financing this week, led by Carmel Ventures with contributions from current investors Index Ventures and Accel Partners, and new investors Beringea Ventures and OurCrowd. "The belief is that this is a long-term business," Demb says of the three-year-old company.
The natural products industry is in serious growth mode, too. Natural Foods Merchandiser's 2012 Market Overview Natural Retailers Survey shows that nationwide, sales of all natural and organic products (including dietary supplements) within all channels jumped 10 percent to nearly $91 billion last year. Not to mention a surge in established farmers' markets across the country, which numbered over 7,800 in 2012.
Demb and company plan take advantage of growing consumer interest by investing part of the new capital to enhance Abe's online shopping experience. Already a massive enterprise featuring some 11,000 products, Demb says Abe's just launched a highly comprehensive product quality system that breaks down every single item by attribute so customers can wade through the enormous offerings by a targeted search.
"Every day we hear from hundreds of consumers with particular needs and wants--whether it be gluten-free, organic, sustainable, etc.," Demb explains. As such, Abe's Qualities ranges from the more recognizable categories such as USDA organic or vegan and takes it a step further to curate by attributes such as paleo diet-friendly, BPH free, made with plant-based or upcycled materials and about 200 more. You can also choose from categories like "where it's from" to buy the most local goods or "Nasty Free" to ensure your lemon peel is made from non-genetically modified fruits, for example.
Once you choose your item, Abe's Qualities drills deeper still by providing an explanation of the attributes. No idea what a paleo diet is? No worries. You can read about it right from the drop-down on the product description.
"In retail, your shopping experience is dictated by a certain aisle," he says, "The web is more customizable." But with that comes the challenge of making sense out of customization. "Connecting people on human level [online] requires a lot more work on our part," Demb admits.
Demb also confesses that coding the site to pull all those different categories was a huge undertaking. It's been in the works for nine months already, and this is just phase one of the upgrade, he says. "That's a big investment of time for a company that's only three years old." Look for phases two and three in the coming year as Abe's combs through more of its customers' feedback to deliver more targeted emails and social integration. The level of awareness of the customers surveyed was surprising, Demb notes, clocking in double-digit percentages with concerns about diet and lots of online dialogue about things like, exactly how harmful is that sodium laureth sulfate in shampoo.
For a company that's touted as the online Whole Foods (Abe's claims to have twice the selection of the brick-and-mortar health food chain) or the Etsy of the natural product space, Demb says it's important to keep paying attention to customers' needs to stay ahead--even if they don't have the budget and resources of Walmart when it launched its Great for You labeling program (which incidentally is only on 165 products).
"It's about building relationships. These are not one-off, once-a-year purchases. For us it's well worth the time and energy because it helps us build that trust you as a consumer need."
There is such thing as too big, Demb says. "We are testing every product. At some point [that level of detail] will probably limit us in the number of products." Until then, he adds, "The challenge online is how to present that much information in a way that is easy to digest."
Copyright 2013 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.