So you want to sell shares to your CSA online. This is an ambitious goal, and seemingly becoming more necessary by the day as the food industry embraces e-commerce. It can also feel like a daunting thing to achieve, especially with all the options out there.
Fortunately, there are professionals in this field willing to offer a helping hand. At the recent Thinking Inside the Box: Growing CSAs Across the Tri-State Region Virtual Conference (the three states being Michigan, Ohio and Indiana), Amy McCann, co-founder and CEO, and Stefanie Jaeger, farm development manager, both of Local Food Marketplace, touched on the topic of choosing an online sales platform that works for you. Local Food Marketplace was founded in 2009 “to re-localize the food system and enable small farms to be profitable through technology.” In 2021, they support more than 350 food hubs and farmers markets, aiding more than 11,000 farmers.
Jaeger said CSA software is for those who are ready to automate repetitive tasks, to save administrative time, to have sophisticated reporting you can trust and to create better customer experiences. The first step in finding your software match is defining your goals. Why are you looking for a platform? If you can’t answer that question, “you may not need one,” Jaeger said. However, a simple answer could be “I am looking to reduce human error and automate repetitive tasks.”
Next, consider your unique CSA operation. Whether it’s traditional or customized, if it’s weekly or monthly or if price points can change through the season all need to be taken into account. Jaeger recommended staying flexible – just because you’ve been doing it certain way doesn’t mean you have to continue doing it the same way.
How payments are handled is also important. Popular options are to pay in full, pay per order (pay as you go) or a payment plan (for example, four installments throughout the season). Look at how the platform you’re considering handles payment processing and reporting, if it charges transaction fees, how refunds are handled and if SNAP benefits can be accepted.
Ease of use in day-to-day operations is critical as well. Remember that a system is only as good as its user, so training and support are definite musts. You’ll likely want something that allows you to manage customers easily by creating or editing orders. Does it generate harvest and pack lists or customer order labels? It needs to integrate well with your current website. It should also create easy to understand reports.
Jaeger said typical regular reporting you’d want to see could include sales and revenue reports (preferably filterable by many attributes), a customer list by date ranges, customer balances, sales by product and by weight (because if you’re certified organic or applying for grants, this is incredibly useful information). Make a list of the data you need on a regular basis and make sure they’re accessible to you – at no additional cost.
Think outside of what you need too – specifically, communications with customers or other producers you may work with. Automated orders and pick-up reminders are useful, as is the ability to customize and control messaging. On the support side, find out if there’s an actual support team, offering email and phone support and emergency/after hours support.
“Do your due diligence,” McCann said. “Do not rely on a feature checklist on a website. Make sure you see the system in action, and not just a slide show. Ask to receive specific reports so you can review them. And what do other farms say that you trust?”
She added that in the age of “Big Data,” you always need to ask questions about key assets of your business, such as where and how your data are stored, who owns those data, if you’ll have full access to your customers’ information and if you’ll control and manage your website and domain.
McCann and Jaeger listed some resources for those who would like to dive deeper into choosing an online CSA platform, including the CSA Retention Guide on their website (localfoodmarketplace.com), the FairShare Coalition (csacoalition.org), the CSA Innovation Network (csainnovationnetwork.org) and the Facebook groups for Market Garden Success and CSA Success.