In the nineties, when my kids were young, I moved the family to an old farm town in New Jersey called Hopewell. It was safe, the schools were great, and housing was fairly cheap. It was perfect, except for one thing: The high school had no football team–hadn’t had one, for mysterious reasons, for some 60 years. A lot of my fellow immigrants to Hopewell had the same aching sense of loss when, as the fall foliage overtook this bucolic setting, the sound emanating from athletic fields was that of soccer balls being booted, not pads and helmets crashing. A group of parents, led by a neighbor of mine, a Newark police detective named Mark Clemens, formed a gridiron organization and vowed to build a program. Did they ever. They established a Pop Warner program as a feeder organization, hired a stud coach, and started a summer football camp for kids. Twelve years later the Hopewell Valley Bulldogs are 4-0, ranked 8th in the state, and have bested their opponents by a combined score of 139-20.
I had long since moved back to New York when I learned of this astounding result last week. It reminded me of something an agency head told me recently while interviewing him for a story on segmention: Start-ups can have an advantage over large entrenched brands because the latter have a hard time letting go of legacy customer profiles and old methods used to reach them.
Such a company is Abe’s Market, which got rolling in 2009 when natural product entrepreneur Richard Demb and brand marketer Jon Polin decided to get into the online grocery business. That’s not an idea with a lot of upside for even seasoned supermarket veterans, but Richard and John had an edge: They didn’t know any better.
“It was a new concept, the marketplace concept,” says former Gap CMO Kimberly Grayson, who joined Abe’s last January as chief revenue officer. “It’s not just an aggregation of products, it’s a melding of the voices of the supplier companies and the customers. We see ourselves as a deeper connection into the natural living space.”
In brief, Abe’s didn’t have to find ways to metamorphose its marketing into content that would nurture its specialized customer base. Demb and Polin’s original business plan was to use content to draw in customers.
Log on to the Abe’s Market site and it’s clear that commerce is its primary driver. But the company bolsters its menu with quality content. Abe’s hired Ari Bendersky, a veteran food and lifestyle writer for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Eater as its site’s editor-in-chief. On a editorially driven lead page called “Scoop,” Bendersky writes articles and shares recipes, but so do knowledgeable suppliers and customers. Alongside a story about autumn cocktails written by Bendersky is an article titled “8 Great Free or Cheap Ways to Stay Fit This Fall” by “Abe’s Enthusiast” Erica Agran.
On the commerce side, visitors will find a mix of short-term promotions and longer-term incentives to remain an Abe’s customer. This week visitors are met by a pop-up that says “Save 15% Right Now. Come see what some people call ‘God’s Gift to Nature.’” Clicking on it leads them to a landing page to deposit their personal data and join the Abe’s Rewards program. But a look at the club’s “Earn Points” program reveals an agenda different from some other grocery loyalty program. The first line says “Make a purchase” and informs members they’ll receive one point for every dollar spent. Then comes “Review a product” (10 points), “Refer friends to purchase” (200), and “When friends visit from tweet” (5).
In this melding of commerce and content, Abe’s may have stumbled upon a format that may be more customizable, and therefore more satisfying, to its customers than even magazines like Food & Wine. “When you come to Abe’s, there’s always something new to find and ways to filter and find your own path,” Grayson says. “If you lead a certain dietary lifestyle or if you have allergy needs, you can create custom content from our drop-downs. As customers get deeper into it, they go deeper into the stories behind the sellers.”
A private company, Abe’s does not share sales figures. Grayson reports, however, that the company’s Net Promoter Score is currently 78%, which puts it within Amazon range. She also says that revenues are rising fast and that the company expects the velocity to continue since only 35% of the business is coming from repeat customers.
The company works off a Magento e-commerce platform and uses Bronto to manage its email program, but Grayson insists the business gets its juice from an employee base that is committed to the natural lifestyle and a supplier base that is equally devoted.
“Being a trusted source of information permeates Abe’s through and through,” Grayson says. “Customers visit with greater frequency when there’s more to engage with than just product.”