Home Brew Store Moves Online

Local Home Brew Store Boosts Online Ordering Due To COVID-19

My local home brew store did an amazingly fast job of moving products to an e-commerce platform in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I was so intrigued I had to learn more, so I interviewed the owner and the web designer who made this happen, and I want to share their story with you. But first, let me tell you why I'm featuring this business specifically.

I got into home brewing because while I love, love, love hard cider, I hate with all my heart how much sugar is in so many brands. I mean, if I wanna drink sugar water, I'll make my own, umkay? And just to make my sad story sadder, my favorite English hard cider is no longer available locally, but don't cry for me. I decided that if I couldn't find what I wanted at the local adult beverage stores, I'd learn how to make my own!

Enter Annapolis Home Brew in Severna Park, Maryland. Long before this rotten virus came into being, I would go there to buy supplies and ask questions about how to brew my own hard cider.

These guys walk and talk great customer service. Ask any question about beer, wine, mead or hard cider, and the knowledgeable staff will fully answer it for you, and help you purchase the right equipment to help you successfully make your own alcoholic beverage.

Recently, I needed some equipment, and when I looked at the website just to see how to do pickup, I saw how much improvement had been done on the site. So, when I picked up my supplies, I asked if I could do a blog post, and here we are.

Enough...now onto the story! I'm going to let Steve Bolton of Annapolis Home Brew and his web designer, Tom Ostrye explain.

NOTE: Some of these answers have been edited for clarity.

Boosting The Home Brew Store Website

First, Steve's story:

How soon into the COVID-19 pandemic did you make the business decision to transition from selling physically inside your store to selling online? What were some of your considerations?

The website was in progress for a few months, with a notional launch date in May. Tom [Oystre] had built the bones of the site, but we focused our efforts in loading inventory in the site, so we could launch on April 1st.

What business factors did you take into consideration when it came to deciding to modify your current website vs. creating a new, unique e-commerce storefront?

When we took over the business about two and a half years ago the website we inherited was down to just a web page. We launched a new website then, but it was limited by our ability to only sell non taxable items. The previous website platform was limited in tax implications. In order to better serve our customers, we needed to offer both taxed and non-taxed items. Tom researched the capabilities of platforms and our needs, and suggested we abandon the old and start from scratch.

What are some of the challenges Annapolis Home Brew (AHB) have had to overcome to get the site ready to sell online products?

Loading the inventory in the website (taking photos, adding descriptions, stock numbers and pricing) as well as shipping hurdles. This is new ground for us, and we've learned a lot, with lots still to learn. our customers have been instrumental in guiding us with their wants and needs. Since the launch of our site on April 1st their requests have help us prioritize what sections need attention first.

How did/is the transition going in terms of customers still getting the home brew supplies they need?

Our customers have been very accommodating in the migration to the new site. As customers need something [that's] not on the site, we have been making every effort to add, so the site is improved, and other customers will have the opportunity to discover new areas to improve. The site has been crucial in not only providing our goods and services to the national audience, but also to the local brewers and wine makers who appreciate the ability to place orders for in-store/curbside pickups. This helps us balance our workload better and provide an environment for social distancing in the store.

If you are using web analytics data to track website performance, have you seen an increase in web visitor traffic?

We are using some, but at this point the information is new to us. We have seen a growth about 500% from previous website. We have been using the new search terms to guide our priorities in adding new products.

Since transitioning to online selling, what are a few of your top-selling products? Are you surprised by them?

Our best selling items were a limited time pre-order for fresh juice (total sales up about 30%) which has ended. In addition we have seen about a 300% increase in our custom recipe kits. The kits represent about 20% of our overall business in store. I am surprised how fast customers have taken to the website but not in these products being the best sellers.

Whenever the pandemic is over, and the Maryland governor has released all restrictions, will you continue to offer your products and supplies online as well as in-store?

We will continue selling online. Our goal is to be the best we can for our customers. Most customers value the personalized service that we provide, that they can't get on the big competitor sites. We believe that the pandemic will ultimately hurt brick and mortar stores, as the customers have a renewed interest in the convenience of online shopping. We intend to use the website to stay connected with our customers, to encourage them to return to the physical store. In addition, our customer base ranges from in town to across the United States. Our recipes have a large following.

Some final words from Steve:

We knew the benefit of getting the website up and running again, but the quotes we got ranged between $5000 to $20,000 do get it up and running again. Being new to the business and not flush with funds, we opted to do what we could ourselves and at least get our almost 100 recipes online again. One of our partners took on the challenge and did what he could in his free time and limited experience and resources and the site served us well enough but was certainly not a tool to grow the business.

Company president Shawn Dann did a lot of the wrangling of content. Writing new product descriptions, updating pricing and figuring out shipping weights. Picture were needed and he and the staff did the shooting and editing of what be a big part of the new look.

Since launching on April 1st 2020 our the new site is quickly becoming a much bigger part of our daily business. Being open for 24/7 on the web, especially during this current health crisis has markedly changed our business focus. We've even added kegerators to our lines of life saving products (in-store pickup only).

Enter Tom Ostrye. Tom and his father Jim had been customers long before we took over the business. Brewing can be a good family activity and in times like this a great time waster. Tom is a Student at Anne Arundel Community College (AACC) in the graphics program and after the first of the year 2020 he offered to become an intern for us to rebuild our site and this would also complete his course requirement. We had him research the different platforms server requirements and plug-ins we would need to mend some our old websites short comings. He was instrumental in guiding us through the options and helping us get what we needed. He was great to work with in picking out layout and color schemes to give us the new look that we wanted to present to the world.

And speaking of Tom - here's what he shared with me. He owns and operates Big Dog Designing.

The Web Re-Design Process

What are your web development skills and qualifications?

I graduated from Edinboro University [Pennsylvania] in 2007 with a BA in Communications. I was really interested in media arts, radio and television. I couldn't find much work with that, so I decided since I knew a little bit about web design I could at least volunteer with it. I really liked it and then I found out that I could make money with it. After several years of only being self-taught, I decided to go for a degree in web design from Anne Arundel Community College. I loved it. I took one class in User Experience (UX) design, loved that too, so I started the UX program at University of Baltimore.

How did it happen that you were chosen to do this site transition?

I have been a customer at AHB for many years. I watched the previous owners of the store run an ecommerce site with tremendous success, only to have it fail due to the failure to keep up with the amount of orders coming in. Then, the store changed hands and a new site was implemented. At this time I had much greater skill in the web world and I was pretty sure that I could do better. Eventually, AHB reached the end of the rope with their website provider, and they asked me if I could help construct a new site. The timing was just right, as I needed an internship to complete my web design degree.

What were the two biggest challenges you had to overcome in the web design and functionality to move the domain to an e-commerce platform?

The biggest challenge was migrating products from the previous host (Squarespace) to the new host (Shopify). Shopify provides a script to do this, but things like product variants didn't transfer.

Also was the challenge of how to best layout the navigation menu. I wanted to make sure that customers were able to find everything, but at the same time I didn't want 56 different choices in the navigation menu.

Did this take you longer than you expected?

I started the project at the end of January, and expected to finish at the end of April. Actually I was a few weeks ahead of schedule so I felt I could take my time. But then the shutdown due to COVID put a huge rush on. I was nervous, but I had most of the pieces in place. The parts that were not there were things that could be added after switching to the new site.

How much testing did you do prior to launch in terms of user experience, ensuring pages were live and loading properly and shopping cart functionality?

We tested the site's checkout process, the shopping cart functionality, the look and feel of the site and the SEO features. I am kind of inexperienced, but I felt like I knew enough to build this site. I knew how to make sure that I would have information when I am more experienced.

Are you still monitoring the site's performance and functionality?

Always. Shopify provides analytics and I was able to set up Google Analytics. I monitor trends in user interaction to recommend changes that could increase performance. Right now, the site generates around 30% revenue. I really want that to increase.

Some final words from Tom as well:

I've never taken on a project of this scale and it turned out spectacular. I can't take all of the credit, maybe just 90%. I did get help from AHB as far as what products should go where.

So there  you have it - a great story from a small business that did what it needed to do to adapt during this awful pandemic.

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Until we meet again, keep it safely between the ditches!

All the very best to you,

Nancy McDonald

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