Bettys of Harrogate.

Mail order has become Bettys of Harrogate’s “seventh branch”, says Janet Welby-Jenkins, who manages the celebrated bakery’s website. Bettys’ website has been running for nine years but was upgraded for online retailing three years ago. Internet ordering via the Bettys By Post mail ordering operation has grown noticeably since then, according to Ms Welby-Jenkins. “It’s a good proportion of Bettys By Post’s sales,” she says.

Word of mouth and repeat custom have helped build a solid customer base. “Customers come into our branches, pick up a printed brochure and then go online,” she says. “We have been lucky enough that people know who we are and will search us out.”

Not all products sold through a Bettys branch – such as cream cakes – are suitable for selling online, but the mail order range remains sizeable. “We have selected from our range those things that post well and have a slightly longer shelf-life,” says Ms Welby-Jenkins.

So what are the most important things to get right about e-commerce? “We like to be as approachable as we possibly can,” she says. “We are a voice on the end of the phone, if a customer is concerned about when they will receive their cakes.

“We’re still learning little things about what works and what doesn’t,” she continues. “For instance, if you deliver a cake and somebody’s not in, should you leave it on the doorstep? One of the challenges is to make sure that anything we send out will be fresh when it arrives and doesn’t break in the post.”

UPS is used to deliver parcels because orders are fully traceable in the event of any problems. There is also a ‘Fresh from the Oven’ section on the website for products baked specially to order, which are sent via first class delivery in the UK. A review of the entire website is planned this summer.

The Village Bakery (Melmerby).

The Village Bakery, which makes organic breads, cakes, bars, biscuits and gluten-free products, is looking to promote mail order online and to supply more independent retailers via its UK-wide, next-day delivery service. And if a supermarket buyer chances upon the site, that is a bonus.

“We have invested £10,000 over two websites,” says MD Michael Bell. “You only need one or two hits from a major retailer to make it worthwhile.”

People who have traditionally used mail order are converting to internet shopping, adds Mr Bell. Mail order accounts for a “not insignificant” proportion of The Village Bakery’s business – the size of a small shop’s takings. “But we don’t have the overheads of a small shop,” he adds.

Hard-to-find niche products are ideally suited to online retailing and a search for ‘gluten-free bakery’ will come back with The Village Bakery near the top.

“We are selling the kind of products that people search the web for – special diet products,” explains Mr Bell. “If you’ve got a food allergy, you’re choosing to avoid eating something or you’re looking for organic goods, the internet is likely to be your first port of call.”

Charges are under review. Currently, consumers are encouraged towards multiple purchases with a flat rate delivery (£5.95 UK, £11 off shore). Meanwhile, a good web page can also be used as a business tool to talk prospective customers through your products – whether business-to-business or consumer, says Mr Bell.

The Breadshop.

The logistics and cost of delivery can make or break the success of an online operation, The Breadshop in London has discovered. The firm has three shops, in Chiswick, Brent Cross Shopping Centre and St Johns Wood, and supplies Harrods and Selfridges. But a gamble in January to sell bread online has not paid off, says French baker and owner Jonathan Cohen.

The cost to hire a web design consultancy was £2,500, but the investment has not proved worthwhile, he says, and initial uptake has been disappointing. “A lot of people might be interested, see the delivery cost and think twice,” says Mr Cohen.

Managing online ordering is “a pain”, he adds. “You need to spend time looking out for the orders coming through your emails, then you need to put the orders together and ship them – it’s hard work. Unless you really want to make a business out of it, it’s not worth

the effort.”

The Breadshop’s range includes wheat-free spelt loaves, rolls and croissants, as well as wholemeal and rustic breads. The loaves sell for between £2.15 to £2.50 online. The payment system is Paypal – a method familiar to millions of users of online auctioneers eBay. Orders are taken Monday to Thursday and must be completed by 2pm, and are then baked fresh by 5pm for next-day delivery.

But the cost of using Royal Mail appears to have put off shoppers. A minimum charge of £6.95 per delivery with an order of around £30 worth of bread costing £19 in postage charges means you must either have deep pockets or be desperately short of local bakeries to make a purchase.

Despite the difficulties, Mr Cohen says he is unlikely to shelve the internet project. “It doesn’t cost to keep the online delivery side of things going,” he reasons.

The Simply Delicious Fruit Cake Company

This small Shropshire-based company, which employs five people, has been trading for two and a half years. Since offering online ordering two years ago, some 20% of its sales now comes from the internet while the rest are wholesale.

It makes a range of 11 cakes with free-range eggs and up to a 12-month shelf-life, with seasonal varieties, as well as mini versions of all its cakes. “The internet will never be the main part of our business but it’s a growing part,” says joint-owner Millie Hunter.

Keeping the design fresh and appealing is crucial as websites can date quickly, she says. The firm is now revamping the website, improving the design and photography.

“Whereas it looked great just two years ago, you take a fresh look at it and suddenly it looks rather dated. Good photographs are important and the design has to be easy to follow.”

An important factor to consider, adds Ms Hunter, is that many people buying a cake might be new to internet shopping and looking for a safe, secure way into purchasing online.

“People buying a cake online are not necessarily computer literate. It’s a small purchase and they just want peace of mind,” she says.

People typically purchase between one and 20 cakes online rather than large bulk orders, although trade enquiries have been drawn in on the strength of the website, she believes.

Delivery for purchases up to £10 is £3.50; up to £16.50 costs £5.50; and anything over that costs £6.85 per order. Marketing is limited to occasional spend on Google-sponsored links, though the main avenue for promoting the business has been via consumer fairs and write-ups in magazines.

Meg Rivers

“More and more customers are finding us through the website,” says Julian Day, owner of Cotswolds-based bakery Meg Rivers, which re-launched its cakes mail order website last summer at a cost of around £5,000. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a tiny little enterprise in a former barn in Warwickshire like we are, the world is your market.

“I put as much money as I could afford into the website from the outset,” he continues. “Mail order cake websites are often fairly basic, but customers frequently say they found ours to be way ahead of the others in terms of quality. A good site makes them feel assured that the cakes are going to be quality too.”

Meg Rivers, which employs six people, makes traditional cakes selling for between £9.95 and £19.95 for eight- and 16-portion sizes respectively. It also sells biscuits, flapjacks and gift packs. Nearly all of its trade is direct to the consumer through mail order and via its website, which has been live for four years – a handful of cafés and restaurants make up the rest. Traditionally the company sent out brochures, but existing mail order customers are now finding it convenient to use the website.

By targeting the gift market, Mr Day reasons that the relatively high postage cost for the company’s cakes compares well with, for example, florists who deliver. “We’re selling a cake for £10 with £5 for delivery – that might seem quite expensive, but not if you’re sending a gift.”

To make a go of e-retailing you should not cut corners, he stresses, and getting the site developed professionally will pay off. “We sell at the top end of the market and we need to get that across,” he explains. “Our site looks smart and contemporary, but it’s also quick and simple to navigate.” Employing “young, switched-on people” to create your site can help, he adds. But he warns: “You could very easily spend a lot of money and in a couple of years your site’s a museum piece.”

Traditional Oatcakes

Even a relatively unsophisticated website can draw in new customers, if you have a suitably niche product, as Traditional Oatcakes from Stoke-on-Trent has discovered. Two months ago the one-shop bakery successfully launched a Staffordshire Oatcakes home-baking mix online.

Since a local newspaper picked up the story the reaction has been phenomenal, says owner Chris Bates. Its local recipe mix now ships to Australia, New Zealand, Spain, America, South Africa and even the Falkland Islands.

“We were getting emails from ex-Potteries people who had moved to different parts of the world, saying they missed oatcakes,” says Mr Bates. “There are various companies manufacturing and vacuum-packing them, but they’re never quite the same as the real thing. We thought, let’s modify our own oatcake mix slightly so people can make them at home.”

The product is now on sale through gift shops and tourist attractions in presentation boxes; the next step would be to attract wholesalers. Mr Bates says: “We would like to expand on that side before we develop the website further.”