“A cake is suitable for any gender, any age, any faith – everyone would be happy to receive a cake,” is Julian Day’s simple analysis of why his mail-order cakes business, Meg Rivers, is doing so well.

Its cake club has seen considerable growth in the last year with turnover up by around 50% per year over the last three years. This has prompted Meg Rivers to delve further into the gifts market. Cakes offer a thoughtful alternative to a predictable bunch of flowers, says the company’s owner.

“An awful lot of our trade is in the gift market. We sell a cake for £10 that costs £5 to deliver – that seems quite expensive, but not if you’re sending a gift. Few people are realistically going to wander into a local shop and think, ‘I’ve got to have that £20 chocolate cake for the weekend’. But when they want to send a thank you and they want to do it remotely, they’re in a different frame of mind to buy them.”

Direct sales

Day says 99% of the Warwickshire-based company’s trade is now direct to the consumer. Meg Rivers Cake Club members receive a regular supply of cakes delivered to their doors throughout the year, ordered from its twice yearly spring/summer and autumn/winter catalogues, or via its website. An informal newsletter keeps customers aware of promotions and news from the bakery.

Because of the premium price of its cakes, Meg Rivers’ core customers are inclined to purchase mainly for special occasions such as Christmas and Easter. But that is not enough to grow the business, says Day, and the need to foster an all-year-round trade is crucial to maximising turnover – hence a renewed focus on its internet operations.

Its website, which has been live for four years, underwent a revamp last year at a cost of around £5,000 – a high price for a company that employs just six people, but it is money well spent, he says. “The world and his wife will say they can design you a website for a couple of hundred quid. But I put as much money as I could afford into it. Mail order cake websites are often fairly basic. If customers see a good quality site, then that makes them feel assured that the cakes are going to be quality too.”

Very little ‘e-marketing’ is undertaken, which speaks volumes for the value of a smart, contemporary design and simple navigation for drawing web surfers towards a purchase. “It’s very easy to be seduced by bells and whistles,” he says. “But our website was well set up at the outset. The technical matters go completely over my head, but whatever they did, they did it well! We sell at the top end of the market and we need to get that across; we do that with our brochures and our website.”

Good public relations, through coverage in national women’s magazines, has helped get the company’s cakes noticed and sparked word-of-mouth sales.

Teatime treats

The bakery is “an old established business but also a new business”, says Day. Australian-born Meg Rivers – the company’s late founder – had served in the family tearoom in Bowral, 80 miles south of Sydney, learning to bake from an early age and developing a love of traditional English teas.

She arrived in England in 1973 and began making cakes in an old parsonage in Lower Brailes, Warwickshire. Realising that the quality and presentation of her cakes could provide the key to a successful business venture, she set up the company in 1988.

After a friend left to live in Zimbabwe, begging Meg to send her homemade cakes overseas, the mail order business was born. While the majority of orders still come from within the UK, they frequently arrive from destinations as far flung as Alaska and Australia.

Meg Rivers built up a healthy mail-order trade, offering a range of traditional and innovative English cakes, biscuits and traybakes. At first, classic fruit cakes were produced in her own home before moving into a small purpose-built facility in Tysoe, Warwickshire.

By 1998, she had a small team of staff offering a wide selection of teatime products, including gift-packed celebration cakes and hampers. The business now employs six people, with extra staff drafted in during peak periods.

The death of Meg Rivers in 2000 brought the firm to a temporary standstill, and the family turned to friend and colleague Julian Day who had helped develop the business. Day’s first action on taking the reins was to write to all of the original customers to tell them of the change of ownership and to reassure them that he shared Meg Rivers’ commitment to natural, wholesome foods. Very quickly it was back to ‘business as usual’. This partly explains why the operation is geared predominantly towards selling direct to the consumer rather than through wholesale.

“The biggest thing I noticed when I first took over was that we had a core of very loyal customers who order on a regular basis, several times a year,” he recalls. “We now want to sell more cakes to more people rather than try to sell more to our existing customers.”

Still essentially a cottage business, operating in the Warwickshire village of Blackwell, he has since developed the operation with the addition of the website as well as an attention to brand-building. One factor in developing a loyal customer base has been successfully communicating with customers through the regular chatty newsletters, he says.

Although it retains a small number of café and restaurant customers, running a mail-order business has many benefits. “We are not paying high street rents or rates, which is perhaps one of the reasons a lot of bakers have closed. It doesn’t matter if you’re a tiny enterprise in a former barn in Warwickshire like we are – the world is your market,” he continues. “It’s just as easy delivering a cake to Alaska as it is to Chelmsford.”

- Meg Rivers’ products include chocolate, cherry and almond fruit cakes, which sell for between £9.95 and £19.95 for eight- and 16-portion sizes respectively; lemon cookies; brownies, Bakewells and flapjacks; and celebration cakes made to order. Many products reflect seasonality and availability of fresh produce, such as elderflower and gooseberry, rhubarb and ginger, and carrot cake, while ingredients are sourced locally wherever possible. Novelties include a ‘Starving Student’ pack, which contains 60 portions of traybakes, costing £40, plus £5 delivery.