Stanwood farmer works soil, Internet to build business

STANWOOD — The Klesick family farm has a dilemma.

The farm and produce delivery business wants people to savor simple things — such as preparing a meal from fresh, organic vegetables. The Klesicks want people to unplug, slow down and learn how to make soup that doesn’t come from a can and brownies that don’t come from a box.

“As a farmer, I need customers who enjoy eating and preparing fresh fruits and vegetables, who will actually sit down with their family or friends to enjoy homemade healthy meals and great conversation,” Tristan Klesick said. “Yes, I did mean sitting down, disengaging from their cell phones, computers and TVs.”

But in order to help customers do that, Klesick has to meet them on their turf: on blogs, Facebook and other forms of social media.

Klesick recently answered some questions about how the farm is reaching out to customers online, and how it’s keeping customers while in the economic downturn.

Question: Tell us about the Klesick Family Farm.

Answer: The Klesick Family Farm has been delivering healthy organic fruits and vegetables to homes and offices since 1997. Our “boxes of good” are delivered in Snohomish County, Camano Island, Anacortes and Mount Vernon. Our farm is located in the fertile soils near the mouth of the Stillaguamish River where we raise tree fruit, vegetables, grass-fed beef and children.

Question: What about the recession? How did that affect your business?

Answer: We had been growing steadily every year and, like many, took the economy for granted. When things started to melt down we were allowing our credit customers to pay their bills monthly. With large banks failing, I revisited that policy and within the month we switched our billing to the next day after the customer received their delivery.

Our customers still supported us during the recession, but switched their orders to every other week or to one of our smaller menu choices. In the first quarter of 2009, I couldn’t figure out why the usual expected profit wasn’t matching the new customers that were signing up in the first quarter of 2009. Eventually, I ran an analysis of my sales from January 2008 to March 2009. That is when I discovered the shift in sales toward our smaller priced boxes. It wasn’t a big shift, only 5 percent from our Family boxes to Small boxes, but that shift was enough to take a good bite out of our profit.

I didn’t panic, but I needed to act on the information. I did not raise prices. We watched our inventory more closely and began a systematic plan to increase our skews and offer more options to our customers and potential customers. As a result, our company offers more variety and flexibility to meet our customer’s needs today.

Question: You’ve mentioned social media is playing a bigger role in how you communicate with customers. What works for you?

Answer: Social media has allowed us to communicate in a “real time” capacity. We recognized that many of our customers were connecting with each other using social media. And since we are primarily an online retailer, we wanted to enter into the discussion where they were happening. So working with the premise “that birds of a feather flock together” we have started to engage our customers where they are “flocking.” Facebook has been our most successful tool to connect with our customers followed by our blogs.

One of the best things about social media is the ability to engage your customers and respond to them and their inquiries quickly, but also at the same time answer that same question for a customer who wanted to know that answer, but wouldn’t ask.

Question: Are there times when social media falls short? What doesn’t work?

Answer: Social media is relatively new and is constantly changing, but our customers are using these tools to connect with each other and companies they want to do business with.

From my perspective, it requires a firm company commitment to benefit from the different social media outlets. Sadly, depth of communication is lacking in social media. You have to earn the right to be heard through sound bites and 140 character tweets.

This is an excerpt of a longer interview. For more, read Amy Rolph’s small-business blog at www.heraldnet.com/TheStorefront.

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