From the field through Amazon: Local farm uses online sales to attract buyers for Palouse crops

August 29, 2018

Sara Mader used her software background to start selling products from a fifth-generation family farm on Amazon Grocery and Gourmet.

Palouse Brand is headquartered in the small town of Palouse, Washington, population 1,045. It ships cloth bags of wheat berries, flour, garbanzo beans, dried peas and lentils nationwide.

“Everything we sell, my husband grows on the farm,” Mader said.

During a Tuesday afternoon workshop in Spokane’s University District, Mader talked about how online sales have transformed the family-owned business. When she was selecting a web designer, Mader hired a vegan because so many of the customers who buy through Amazon are vegan.

Palouse Brand’s staff regularly hears this directive: “Don’t run out of 5 pound bags (of product) on Amazon.”

The Small Business Administration and Amazon teamed up to put on the event, which was hosted by Eastern Washington University’s Riverpointe campus. The workshop focused on how e-commerce can help small companies grow sales and attract new customers.

Online sales are “a skill and competency” small businesses must master, said Bruce Teague, associate professor and director of EWU’s Center for Entrepreneurship.

“I love brick-and-mortar, but a lot of purchasing is no longer done that way,” Teague said. “When you look at the modern shopping experience, being able to sell to people who aren’t walking into a shop is critical.”

Over half of the products sold on Amazon come from small- and medium-sized businesses, said Andrew Forster, Amazon’s business development manager. Those companies are vital to the e-commerce giant’s continued growth, Amazon officials said.

“We know there are great companies and products in Eastern Washington,” Forster said. “Online sales help them grow beyond the geographic location of the business … We’re giving them an opportunity to grow alongside national brands.”

The workshops covered basics of online sales, including having enough inventory, using social media for marketing and tracking customer reviews. Online customers want a broad range of choices, competitive prices and convenient delivery, Forster said.

Kyle Petersen, co-owner of OK Socks, which sells custom socks online, was also a presenter, along with Liorah Wichser, who launched Nayeli Clothing, a line of made-in-Spokane apparel.

Amazon accounts for about 60 percent of OK Sock’s sales, Petersen said. In addition to online sales, Wichser said Nayeli Clothing is sold at fairs, where shoppers can try on the garments. In the future, she’d like to have a small storefront as well as an online presence.

Mader, of Palouse Brand, said she’s relied on Amazon’s expertise in the world of e-commerce to help grow company sales, one 3-pound, 25-pound or 100-pound order at a time.

Palouse Brand’s website features photos of the family farm. Each cloth bag of wheat, lentils, peas or garbanzos comes with a code, which customers can scan with their smartphones to track which field the product came from and even “who drove the combine,” Mader said.

Through Amazon’s outreach, she recently learned that “lifestyle pictures are a big deal.” Instead of featuring food pictures with recipes on the company’s website, Mader said she’s moving toward photos that show people eating the food.

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