It’s not a stretch to say that agribusiness supplier Farmlands help keep food on the table for New Zealanders. The Farmlands Co-operative is the largest buying group of its type in the country, using its purchasing power — some $2.5bn per year in transactions — to reduce costs for and benefit more than 70,000 shareholders nationwide.

The impact of COVID-19 drove Farmlands to adopt more digital modes of buying, selling, and engaging with its stakeholders — not just buyers, but also the next generation of farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs. And while the co-operative lacked substantial experience in deploying e-commerce services at scale, its leaders agreed on the need for urgency.

“It’s more important to get in front of buyers than to be perfect,” says Richard Wilkinson, Farmlands’ Chief Digital Officer.

“Delays only reinforce the perception that expectations will never meet reality — you’ve simply got to get out there early.”

Richard’s team knew it would need a system that not only addressed the lower-than-average levels of digital literacy amongst existing shareholders, but also engaged effectively with younger and more digitally-savvy prospects.

The team worked with Datacom to deploy a hybrid “bricks and clicks” e-commerce ecosystem centred on Adobe Experience Manager and Microsoft Dynamics365 Commerce. That included the use of Dynamics 365 in physical stores alongside a bespoke front-end site designed to match the Farmlands brand — giving shareholders a familiar look and feel to the new experience.

Better service, better insights

Farmlands’ shareholders have seen a marked uptick in service quality and speed as a result of the e-commerce shift. The co-operative’s new Card Partner Directory has replaced easily-outdated print guides with a simple, searchable map of its 6000 discount locations — making it easier for both shareholders and partners to shop or supply goods at any time.

Now, when shareholders do encounter issues, they’re directed to self-service guides and portals. That’s freed up call centre staff to focus on more unique challenges, and halved the time it takes for customers to resolve their issues — whether online or on the phone.

The self-service portal has proved so effective that within six months, it had chalked up more than 26,000 active users — most of whom came from older demographics with relatively low digital literacy.

“Our guiding principle was to give customers a personal buying experience where they’re in control,” says Aimee Palmer, Farmlands’ Digital Delivery Manager. “The integrated platform has made that much simpler.”

It’s not just shareholders who have benefited. The co-operative’s digital team can now access a far deeper and more comprehensive view of their customers. Since launching in April 2021, the e-commerce platform has captured registrations from more than 8000 casual buyers who would’ve previously paid and left in-store without leaving any record — creating substantial new opportunities for high-margin recurring revenue.

The team’s also found significant value in new, real-time insights about their shareholders: like when one customer purchased more than $6000 in stock when the e-commerce platform was turned on for live testing, half of which came from products that Farmlands had initially planned to leave off the site. E-commerce revenues grew 30x in the first weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Connecting with a new demographic

And with the e-commerce shift, Farmlands has discovered newfound popularity amongst younger owners of smaller properties, many of whom have gone from shopping online to actively advocating for the brand. While visitor volumes have grown significantly across all age segments, the Farmlands e-commerce platform saw a 25% uptick in visits from those aged 35-44.

“We thought younger buyers might be discouraged by our more traditional image,” Richard admits. “Instead, we’ve discovered they see Farmlands membership as a badge of honour — a sign that they’re running serious businesses with serious respect for quality. That’s the sort of insight and subsequent engagement you only achieve by embracing digital with confidence.”

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