Monday, November 22, 2010

Surveys of mid-Atlantic consumers conducted by Penn State researchers part 1

Over the past 2 years, researchers at Penn State University have surveyed mid-Atlantic consumers to determine consumer attitudes and behaviors towards food purchases. Baltimore, New York City, Philadelphia, Richmond, and Washington, D.C. were chosen based on the diverse demographics of consumers who reside in each area.

Survey questions were developed to investigate factors influencing consumer purchasing decisions regarding fresh produce and value-added, processed products. Researchers were interested in the role and impact of increasing food prices, rising energy costs, and other economic factors. Survey respondents were also asked about food safety, quality, availability, variety, and affordability. The surveys were conducted quarterly to investigate changes over time to better forecast consumer responses to situations, such as further increases in energy costs and reoccurring food safety issues.

For the next few weeks, I will be blogging about these survey results and how they can help entrepreneurs make decisions about their businesses. The first set of results I will discuss involves questions regarding on what types of food products
survey respondents purchased, where they purchased these products, and what variables may have affected their purchasing behaviors. One particular question asked participants to indicate what types of produce/produce-based food items they purchased for their household during an average week.

90.6% of survey participants chose fresh fruits and vegetables as items bought for their household during an average week. The next most popular item was potato/corn/vegetable chips, selected by 71.2% of participants. Other popular food items included frozen fruits and vegetables, selected by 64.3%, jams/jellies/marmalades (59%), fruit/vegetable juice or nectar (57.4%), vegetable-based soups (56.6%), and canned/bottled fruits and vegetables (54%).

To read more about the survey, please visit www.midatlanticspecialtycrops.com and click the "Newsroom" tab.

As an ag entrepreneur, do you sell any of the above products? If you sell a variety of these product types, are your sales similar to this data (meaning is fresh produce a better seller than fruit/vegetable juices or canned fruit/vegetables)? If you are thinking about becoming an ag entrepreneur or you are an ag entrepreneur looking to expand your product line, does this data influence your decisions on what you will sell?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Learning Directly From Your Customers

As a business owner, you probably have a good sense of your customers’ needs and wants, but there is always the possibility that your own personal views and preferences influence what goods and services you offer. What better way to assist in product selection than to directly as consumers? Surveys and focus groups can serve ask the basis for the future direction of your retail outlet and can be conducted in the store and online. For more information on how to develop survey questions and conduct focus groups, visit the Penn State Farm Business website at: http://extension.psu.edu/farm-business/announcements/articles.
Focus groups usually involve a smaller number of consumers (usually, eight to 12) and are simply an in-depth conversation about a particular set of topics. By only including a limited number of participants, it is very likely that you will get each and everyone’s input, but the data should not be used as the only source for making business decisions. Rather, focus groups can be thought of as a starting point for selecting products, making future business decisions, and for selecting questions that can be included in additional surveys.

Focus groups can be conducted online using tools such as Google Groups (http://www.google.com/grphp?hl=en) or Yahoo! Groups (http://groups.yahoo.com/). Both can be used to create a group and invite others to join and read and post messages. Additional features for both tools allow users to read and post messages online or view and respond to messages that are sent to their email addresses.

Several online survey programs are available for free, with limited functions, but the full versions can also be purchased on an annual basis. Tools such as SurveyMonkey.com, Zoomerang.com, and SurveyGizmo.com allow users to:
• create surveys,
• send links to the survey in emails or incorporate the link into a webpage
• provide some analysis, and
• download the data in either report form or as an excel document.

Similarly, explore Google Docs Forms which can be designed to look like a survey and imbedded in an email that you send to potential participants. Once received, the recipient can respond to the questions and click the “submit” button when finished. You will then have access to a spreadsheet where responses are organized by survey participant.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Additional Web and Email Monitoring Tools

You’ve probably decided that monitoring what customers post about your business online is an important task to implement, but there are other aspects of your business that you must also monitor online:
• number of visitors who access your website and how this foot traffic changes throughout the day or week,
• effectiveness of an email, online newsletter, or other communication that encourages customers to visit your website, and
• how long visitors stay on your website.

Asking customers about their shopping experience, both online and your retail store, is a smart strategy – one that can assist you in better understanding what new goods and services might appeal to them. The process of investigating and collecting this data is referred to as web analytics, where the business owner can make decisions about:
• whether or not customers are responding to messages and information contained in an email message and,
• if certain webpages appear to be more appealing to visitors than others.

Just as there is a variety of tools available for monitoring what consumers post about your business, there is also great array of third party websites that can help you gather information which can be used to strengthen your online presence.

Google Analytics (google.com/analytics) is a free program that can be used to collect:
• how visitors “find” your site, whether they type in the URL or if they are directed from another site,
• your “bounce rate,” which is the percent of visitors who visit your landing page and then leave your website,
• learn how long visitors remain on your site, how many pages they access during their visit, and if they are lead to a certain page on your site because they clicked on an ad you posted elsewhere online,
• view standard reports or create custom ones that provide you with metrics including the number of new visitors who have accessed your site, number of times a certain product was purchased, revenue-per-click, and
• many more useful metrics.

Implementing Google Analytics requires signing up for a Google account, entering the URL for your website, and adding the Google Analytics Tracking Code to your site. Once the system is in place the benefits can greatly assist a business with understanding who is visit the site, when, and where they navigate to. All important statistics when monitoring the effectiveness of a website.

Responding to Customer Reviews

Whether posted on your website or a third party website, it is your duty as a business owner to respond to what has been published online. Your response to negative posts can help reverse some of the ill feelings that the poster and readers might have towards your business.

Based on data, and if the customer has a valid issue that needs to be addressed, it is necessary to do the following:
• post a reply and acknowledge that there was a problem and it will be corrected,
• provide an explanation for the problem,
• apologize for the problem, and
• thank the customer for informing you about the issue.

Consider responding to positive reviews as well. Thanking customers for publishing these positive views, feelings, and experiences is a way to give your business a personality and increases your presence on the Internet. A simple thank you is all that is necessary, based on input from Yelp.com: “while a gift or invitation sounds like a nice idea, it can also be misinterpreted as a bribe or payment for the review. Remember, this customer already likes your business -- just use this opportunity to thank them and introduce yourself.”

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Inviting Consumers to Post Reviews On Your Website

Consumers like to tell others about problems and issues that they have - both good and bad. If consumers are likely to post reviews and critiques online, what better place than on your business’s website?

There are a variety of tools you can employ to add a review and comment section to your website. Consider enlisting a service that sends e-mails to customers who have made online purchases and that invites them to provide a review. Or, include an option where consumers can provide ratings and reviews directly on your website. PowerReviews (powerreviews.com) and Bazaarvoice (bazaarvoice.com) are two such companies that provide a mix of tools for capturing customer input.

After you have the capability to ask for and post customer reviews, what will your strategy be for soliciting the reviews and encouraging customers to provide the valuable information? Suggestions range from “including a ‘write-a-review’ link on every product page” to sending customers thank you emails with links to review/comment pages, to offering customers an incentive for providing a review like a free item or discount/points that can be applied towards a future purchase.

As you work through the process of asking for and posting reviews on your website, you will certainly find some reviews with spelling errors, grammar issues, and missing or incorrect product details. It is permissible to correct spelling, capitalization, and/or punctuation, but editing much more of the review should be avoided.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Monitoring Your Business’s Online Presence

The number of forums, bulletin and message boards, and social networking sites that allow consumers to comment, rant, or rave about a business is continuing to grow. Taking the necessary steps to monitor what others are saying about your business online is an essential component of building and protecting your business’s reputation.

Consumers are not limited to just posting on networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Rather, sites developed to encourage consumer reviews provide a rich bevy of business reviews (for example, Yelp.com and Citysearch.com). Your ability to monitor these sites independently, or one-by-one, may seem a little daunting. Luckily, third party websites can assist you with this task.

You might want to consider a service such as socialmention.com. The site uses your keywords to search through blogs, micorblogs (Twitter), networks, images, video, Q&A, and other information posted online. In addition, a free RSS feed is available to alert users daily about new postings. Another option is Google Alerts (google.com/alerts). This tool works off of the same principle as socialmentions.com but without a Twitter alert search feature. An added feature that Google Alerts does provide is the user can determine how often alerts should be sent. Alerts can be sent weekly or “as-it-happens.”

These tools can also assist producers, retailers, and others about topics consumers are blogging, tweeting, and posting about including trends, hobbies, and interests in new products
and services. By entering keywords/phrases into search boxes on these sites, users may see common themes among those who are posting online and they may even discover new merchandise that would be a good fit for their current product offering.