By Tim Frick
Last year, Mightybytes launched the B Corp Store, the only place online where consumers could buy products exclusively from certified B Corps. In August 2015, we closed the store’s virtual doors. The metrics we measured pointed toward a pivot and we decided it was time. During the process, we learned valuable lessons about how conscious consumers shop online and how much money you have to spend on marketing to get in front of them.
B Corps are companies that use the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. The global B Corp community includes over 1,300 businesses that range in size and scope from household consumer brands like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s to smaller companies like Sencha Naturals and Rescue Chocolate. By embracing rigorous standards for accountability and transparency, B Corps offer a better way to do business.
When we launched our store, there were no B Corp specific shopping options available online. Vine.com had a virtual B Corp storefront for a while, but it was buried deep within its interface and was hard to find. Ours would be easy to find. We also ran qualitative analysis experiments to get real feedback from potential users and all signs indicated that we were on to something.
As part of our market research, we compiled a growing list of statistics on conscious consumers:
- Aspirational consumers represent more than one-third of consumers globally (38 percent) and are defined by their love of shopping (93 percent), desire for responsible consumption (95 percent), and their trust in brands to act in the best interest of society (50 percent).
- 89 percent of US consumers and 91 percent of global consumers are likely to switch to a brand that is associated with a cause, given comparable price and quality.
- 50 percent of global consumers said they would be willing to reward companies that give back to society by paying more for their goods and services (44 percent in the US and 38 percent in Canada).
With numbers like these, we were certain that an online market that supported groundbreaking companies like B Corps and donated a portion of proceeds to B Lab, the nonprofit that certifies B Corps, would do well. Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out that way. Here are some challenges we faced and things we learned along the way.
1. We Validated The Wrong Idea
Our goal was to use “Lean Startup” principles to first validate our hypothesis that conscious consumers wanted a place to buy B Corp products. After all, we were bootstrapping this thing, so we needed to find cost-effective ways to build and launch it. An iterative lean/ agile framework predicated on the idea of validated learning - launching only what you need in order to prove or disprove a hypothesis and nothing more - seemed the perfect fit.
We started by running a simple promotional campaign with product giveaways from store vendors. We targeted very specific user persona types in key target groups over the course of a month and captured about one thousand email addresses. We received enthusiastic responses on social channels about the store’s impending launch. It was all very encouraging.
The problem was, that campaign didn’t validate our hypothesis. We thought we validated conscious commerce, but it turned out we really just validated that people like free stuff. We validated coupons.
2. Product Placement Matters
Retailers pour millions of dollars into researching the psychology behind placing products on shelves. Whether you realize it or not, your customer experience has been handcrafted specifically to optimize your purchasing opportunities. There’s a scientific reason why suntan lotion is placed next to swimsuits and beer cozies in June. Someone paid a lot of money to figure that out.
Our criteria were a bit different. As long as you were a certified B Corp, you could sell your products in our store. This resulted in products like foot cream being sold alongside green tea mints, dustpans, kids’ clothes, water carafes, and chocolate - not the most consistent shopping experience from the user's perspective.
3. Drop-Ship Fulfillment Isn't Sustainable
We opted out of doing our own fulfillment to save time and money on the MVP (minimum viable product) and instead chose drop-shipping, which is where vendors ship products directly to consumers who buy them. This proved to be a huge hurdle for a couple reasons:
- If shoppers purchased products from multiple vendors, the cost of shipping added up significantly, causing cart abandonment.
- Many B Corps simply were not set up to handle drop-ship fulfillment, so that was a dealbreaker for being carried in the store.
- Additionally, shipping from multiple locations is not the most sustainable way to run online commerce. While we planned to offset the emissions generated from shipping the products sold, in general it wasn’t a very sustainable strategy. That said, it was pretty much the only way we could launch an MVP without incurring exorbitant fulfillment costs. We looked into United Natural Foods Inc./Honest Green for fulfillment, but the number of B Corps in their product feeds were, at the time, quite low. Other options we researched were even less fruitful.
4. It's Easy To Fall Into The Trap Of Thinking No One Cares
When we didn’t see traction over time, team interest in pushing forward began to wane. To market a conscious brand, you need tenacity; the needle may move only a little bit from month to month, and sometimes not at all. Plus, time can be your enemy. Tenacity costs more money when you see little progress over the course of months. You justify just one more month with the hope that by trying something new you will notice a shift for the better. It can be tough to know when to pivot and when to stay the course, and it is extremely difficult to be an overnight success in this space.
A LIGHT AT THE END
Though the B Corp Store is now offline, we still believe in the mission of getting more people to change retail for the better by advocating for conscious companies with their dollars. Mightybytes is a B Corp and we believe a great deal in what this community of businesses has to offer. Companies that use business as a force for good are better for people and planet. So we were excited when Abe’s Market, an online retailer of natural goods (also located in Chicago) agreed to create a B Corp-specific landing page on its store and to migrate a number of our vendors to its marketplace. We were excited to learn that it would consider becoming a B Corp as well. Now conscious consumers can buy from B Corps at a marketplace that has the critical mass needed for growth and innovation, not from some scrappy startup working out of the conference room of a web design firm.
Tim Frick is the owner of Mightybytes, a certified B Corporation that builds creative digital solutions for conscious companies. An author and regular conference presenter, Tim is currently working on his fourth book. He is also Board President of Climate Ride, an organization that produces long distance endurance events that raise funds for environmental causes. He can be reached via @timfrick on Twitter or his blog at timfrick.com.