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Retail to Marketplaces to Branded Store

The Ecwid E-commerce Show hosts Jesse and Rich talk with Ken Dallmier about how he launched an organic bird seed brand Prairie Melody with local retail, expanded via marketplaces Amazon, Walmart, and Chewy and then added his online store.

Most Ecwid guests take the opposite journey, so you can hear the different challenges Ken encountered. In addition, Jesse and Rich give advice on shipping pricing strategies, home page messaging, and more.

Show Notes

  • Selling organic birdseed
  • Engaging people in an environmental cause
  • Selling on marketplaces
  • Home page messaging and free shipping
  • Subscriptions for an online store
  • Bonus from Ken: use the code ECWIDPOD10 for 10% off your order on Prairie Melody Birdseed.


Richard: Our guest has had a business for a long time and is moving from the B2B space into the B2C space. It’ll be interesting to hear that path and that story.

Jesse: Let’s bring him on. Ken Dallmier! Ken, how do you start this thing?

Selling organic birdseed

Ken: Hello, guys! Prairie Melody started about a year ago to provide pesticide-free birdseed to backyard birders. Our mission statement is “Every backyard can make a difference.” And this gives people a way to to help out the environment, bring nature back into their living space. On our parents side, we have a grain company in Clarkston and we do primarily non-GMO and organic grain for food. Some of our favorite, chips and things like that. One of the things we want to be able to do is support our growers going from conventional into organic grains. We needed to have a way to help them make that transition and provide a little different view. So what we’ve done is we’ve started a birdseed business that helps us go B2C. It helps us learn a lot of these pieces. And that journey has been exciting. We’ve had a lot of fun with it, and Ecwid has been a big part of that. And I’m thrilled to be on, thrilled to introduce everybody to the brand and our story.

Jesse: I think you might be surprised that we want to hear some real tips and advice from you. Now, even coming from you had a big legitimate business prior to this. Starting even further back with the with Clarkson grain. Were you always in the organic grain business?

Ken: We were one of the first to get into that business. We’ve been in it since the late 90s. OK. And so one of the pioneers, we helped to write the rules. Now we’re into space where we’re trying to take that next step and go directly to the consumer.

Jesse: Got it. You mentioned helping farmers make the transition. This is southern Illinois, so I imagine it’s soybeans and corn, right?

Ken: Yeah, pretty straightforward. We have the largest set of sunflower fields in Illinois. A quarter of a mile by a quarter of a mile is 160 acres, and we have two or three of those fields, and they’re really stunning whenever they come into flower. The surprising thing to me was as we go in and we take some Instagram pictures, the field would be literally buzzing. Sunflowers are pollinated primarily by bees. All of that activity and all that life going around was exciting. And then you hear that airplanes often off in the distance and you think: “Well, they’re not gonna come into here because that’s part of the production.” That’s how we differentiate in the market.

Jesse: So the end product is primarily sunflower seeds. That’s the product.

Ken: Correct. Pesticide free, no neonicotinoid sunflowers, and primarily for birdseed. The funny thing is, people go into birdseed, and then they think: “Well, maybe this would be something my backyard chickens would like.” And it got into chicken treats, and people will grow them for microgreens. And we have people in Alaska who purchase our sunflower seeds for microgreens in the wintertime.

Jesse: So it ends up in a lot of different places. Sunflower seeds, is that for all types of birds? Is it a particular type of bird that’s attracted to that?

Ken: Sure. Sunflower seeds are more for the cardinals and the gross beaks, the finches, and that sort of thing. What it discourages is the sparrows and the starlings and things that oftentimes people don’t particularly care to have at their bird feeders. For me, it’s helpful because the part of what I enjoy are specific types of birds that we can bring in.

Jesse: Awesome. So we want to bring in the right kind of birds here, and we don’t want to be poisoning them with pesticides and whatnot.

Ken: There’s a growing body of a scientific knowledge now that certain types of pesticides, the neonicotinoids have been coming under pressure here lately that at high dose and as well as at low dose are showing a detrimental effect to not only pollinators, the bees, and things, but also at low dose with migratory birds. Whenever those types of studies hit the popular press, we get a lot of interest. One of the interesting parts about Prairie Melody is we used Amazon for this, to understand where people were interested in us because you can you can figure it out and put it up on a map. And it’s not a coast thing, nor is it really a northern thing. In the wintertime we sell. Matter of fact, we sold a few bags just recently around your area. So for those of you who don’t have winter, there are still people who’d like to have birds come into their backyard. It’s not really geographically segregating, but it helps us to understand that whole market better.

Jesse: Makes sense. I knew at a basic level, pesticides — bad, organic — good.

Ken: And it’s a good way for us to differentiate ourselves in the market. Otherwise, you’re selling a commodity. Yep. And then it’s then it’s a price driver. Yep.

Jesse: Speaking of the price here, how much more does it cost to buy or organic versus non-organic for you? For your product?

Ken: Very often it’s not quite 2X. It’s probably 1.5-1.7 times the price of just standard commodities, but we have to clean it very, very well. We have to do a lot of things to make sure that the insects don’t get into it because nobody likes to open up a product, whether it be birdseed or anything else, and have things that you don’t expect in there. It has to be a very high quality product. And you can’t just fumigate it to get rid of the insects and the things you really don’t want have in there. It’s a premium product. The thing that we’ve learned is this type of product for the merchants is not all about price. Whenever you start to think about a social value type of a product or trying to get into that type of a market, it’s not as price sensitive. Even on Amazon and some of the other platforms that are known for a low price. You can still have reasonable success in that marketplace.

Jesse: Makes perfect sense. I mean, people that want birds in their backyard are probably going to be more likely to be sensitive to organic products and pain for the quality. Particularly when it’s not one hundred dollars versus one hundred fifty dollars. We’re talking, $5 instead of $3.50. Right.

Engaging people in an environmental cause

Ken: One of the stores that we just had our big first order, it was really exciting, it was a chain of those 99 cents only. And they are a value store, and they challenged us on the price a bit, but the reason they wanted to do that was so that their customers could engage in an environmental awareness in their space and at a price point they could afford. We worked with them, and we found a way to package a one-pound pack of our birdseed. We contract with a group here in central Illinois that provides job opportunities to mentally and physically challenged individuals.

Without that challenge from 99-cent, we wouldn’t have found making resources, and without having making resources, we just couldn’t have done it in the way that we did. So it was awesome. It pushed all of the levers and all of the reasons why we’re really in this business. It provided a premium product to folks who may not always expect a premium product, but it allowed them to engage in an environmental cause. And we were able to bring job experience and jobs to 16 individuals who normally wouldn’t have had that opportunity.

It was exciting. We walked in, and as they were packaging the material, they would just light up. The folks who would do it. They just light up. “Hey, Mr. Dallmier, how are you? Can I do birdseed today?” It was awesome. If you were having a bad day at the office, you went into town and watched them do that. It was exciting. So we took a video, we put it on YouTube, and put it on our blog. It was great.

Jesse: Great to hear. You have a big sale and probably not making the margin you would have liked to make. So you have to figure out a way to deliver the product. That opened up this great opportunity for you. It was a great opportunity for everybody. Awesome to hear.

Selling on marketplaces

Jesse: I think what’s interesting here is like Richard mentioned during our intro here, a lot of our customers start online. You started with a really B2B business moving into B2C, but you started that retail first. You’re into brick and mortar. And then you mentioned some of the marketplaces. Tell our listeners, how was it selling on these marketplaces?

Ken: Well, it was jumping in the pool at the deep end. We were able to leverage some of the things that we normally do, which is shipping and that sort of thing. But it also allowed us to raise that level a bit, because then you’re working with the electronic document interchange, the EDI, and you’re working at a different scale.
At first, it was really quite challenging. So that’s what we had to learn. Now as we bring some of those learnings into the core business, we’re able to take some of those platforms, some of those EDI platforms, and engage it with our especially with our international customers, that it helps us be much more efficient back and forth with some of the documents and some of the other pieces and how we deal with time zones.

But it was a bit of a challenge. We have sunflowers, you plant them in the spring, you harvest them in the fall, and then you have a whole acre full of inventory. So now you’ve got this inventory to sort through. You can’t piecemeal in, piecemeal out. There were also some of the pieces around. How do you deal with the big platforms? What do you think about inventory? How do you ship? Our advantage was we already knew what an LTL meant, and how to engage and do some of those things. But there were a lot of those pieces around. OK. You now have this product. What margin do you really need? Do you need to sell a whole bunch at a small margin? Do you need to sell a few and a larger margin? How do you deal with all of those pieces?

Richard: And I think one of the challenges is, I don’t remember the exact timeline there, but you were just starting in the process of building the brand. So here you are in a big marketplace where it’s mostly looked at as a commodity on the marketplace and they don’t know you’re wanting to give back. They don’t know the legacy story, the lifetime story. And I can’t remember what the tagline was. You said something about helping change the world one backyard at a time. They don’t know that yet in the marketplace. They’re just right in a $7 one, in a $2 one, they’re like: “I want the $2 one”.

Ken: On the front page of our product, we had to really think about what does that bag looks like and how does a picture tell why it’s different. We designed the bag, designed packaging. Took a little bit for Amazon to accept that package, as it’s the front page because it’s got a little bit too much stuff on it. But once they understood it, that’s also why we chose Ecwid, frankly, because it could integrate into our work site quite simply. We needed that content site to tell the story. For the most part, once people understand, go into the site, and start bopping through the site, they get educated. They understand. Now, then it’s a matter of how do we efficiently do the transaction? That was the integration. Now we’re trying to figure out, OK, how do we do that even more efficiently? Even better yet.

Richard: One of the things I don’t know where you went ahead with it Jesse, but we could talk to you forever. Because my parents started one of the first health food stores out there. So I totally get organic, and there are just so many ways we could go, but we really want to add value back to you. We always try to do that with the merchants. I don’t know if you have any additional questions or if you want to go into some suggestions or questions.

Jesse: Yeah, we mentioned marketplaces. So for the listeners, I want to make sure we mentioned marketplaces. For the listeners, we’re talking about selling on Amazon, and where else did you sell? What other marketplaces?

Ken: So we are just getting our feet wet now with with, a couple of others. The other dot coms are also in some of the local bricks and mortar stores, which are great. They’re my canary in the coal mine. We love our bricks and mortar stores. They’ll give it to me straight up. “This isn’t working yet” or “I need more of that” or whatever.

The other thing that we like to do is we like to do fundraisers to help support societies, FFA chapters for age clubs. Pretty much anybody tired of the usual magazine and wrapping paper drag. And we were able to use Ecwid too. Actually, we were able to use the options tab on the product page so that ah we had multiple fundraisers, and they could click which fundraiser to send it to. That was actually one of the things that I utilized within Ecwid that I couldn’t find in other places. It was helpful.

Jesse: By the way, actually I even have an idea for you that I didn’t think of before. If you have somebody that has a bigger fundraiser and they want to have it on their website, it would be fairly easy to give them their own instance of an Ecwid store, and they could have it on their particular site. You only have two or three products for them. Maybe they increase the price a little bit. Put it on their website. That’s just an option for you, particularly on the bigger ones, there’s a little bit of work there.

Ken: What makes it nice is the website does all of the taxes and does all of those things, so that the person running the fundraiser, all they have to do is announce it and coordinate final delivery. That’s all they need to do. It works out well.

Jesse: That’s awesome. That’s a good usage of that. I know there’s a little bit of margin built in there too, which you need for fundraisers like everybody. There has to be margin in order for these to work. We could keep talking about marketplaces, but I like the feedback you gave that like, hey, yeah, it wasn’t that easy. The first time you dive into the pdf’s you get from Amazon and how you got to pack up a pallet. It’s mundane the first time. So just everybody listens and be prepared. You just read it, and you want to follow the rules.

Ken: Chewy is the same way, Walmart’s the same way. They’ve got their own process. And that’s how it goes. And packing pallets, some of them will be a certain height. And that’s as far as you can go. Of course, weights are a thing. And with birdseed, we’re big and heavy as opposed to widgets, which are small and light. So we do have to pay attention.

Home page messaging and free shipping

Jesse: We’re gonna shift over to the website here to give people some ideas. The first thing we noticed here when we went to your home page, I didn’t know where to go. I clicked on it. Now I get it. We got the header and now I see the Online Store and About. There’s just one click that some people might not get. “What do I do?” And I see the free sample. That’s great. But then you might be just giving out free samples instead of people buying the five pound bag. So just a thought there. But I mean the pictures are nice. You’re starting out at a good spot.

Now, when I go into the online store, you’ve probably heard our podcast or thought about shipping deeply. So we’re gonna talk about shipping. Your product is heavy, and it even has the volume to it. So it’s not a T-shirt you can throw in an envelope and and ship cheaply and free. Let me ask this, how much does it cost to ship an average package? We got it. There’s a 2.75 clear bag. And then there’s a five-pound like, what does that cost to ship? And of course, I know it depends on how fast and where you live.

Ken: Say from Illinois to ship it out to the West Coast. The best way for me to do that for small packages is through the post office. Because they have flat rate shipping. Now the 40 pound bag. That’s a different matter. You’re not going to crunch a 40-pound bag into a flat rate shipping box. We have to charge shipping. There’s no such thing as free shipping. That makes it a little bit simpler because we charge a flat rate for that. We pay a little bit more if it goes to the West Coast. We get a little bit back if it stays close. So it sort of does even out. Sure. But to your point, and as I was looking through it, everything needs to be free shipping. OK. Just make it that way. The platforms have all got free shipping, and we need to follow it too.

Richard: We’ve been trained, but it’s not fair.

Jesse: You said there’s no such thing as free shipping. I agree. It’s baked in shipping. There are two options here. For people listening here, I’m looking at Prairie Melody. It’s a 2.75 clear bag of black oil sunflower birdseed, 4.99. So shipping is probably five bucks in a flat rate, right? Is that eight bucks? Clearly, you can’t spend eight dollars on shipping. And lose $3 before you bought one birdseed. I get that it can’t be free across the board or you can’t really charge 13 for that, but I think maybe a happy medium here is to have free shipping at a trigger price, right? Like say it’s 30 bucks or $50, that’s up to you, and that’s for everybody listening too, that is up to you to figure it out. Like it’s not at $5 probably because it cost $8 to ship or no matter what you’re always in for $5 shipping. I mean, there’s nothing really less than $5 shipping now. I’m just guessing, you know, like maybe it’s 25, 30 bucks and that sort of matches what target would be. Amazon, if you’re not on Prime, I think is $25 now? That’s a number for you; people come to expect, even the people that are on the prime and expect their toothbrush delivered in one hour for free. Sorry, we’re all stuck on, right?

Ken: Yeah. I mean, I’m the same. “Oh man, two days. Really?” (laughing)

Jesse: And then you on the merchant site, you’re like: “Man, that’s really expensive to get it there.” That’s just the thought; I could see $25 or $30 as a price. And the advantage of that is that for the people that are buying the four 99 bags when they see shipping is X amount of dollars, they’re like: “Well, I could just buy the $25 version and get it for free.” Like they might do that math and increase their basket size.

Part of the reason I say that is that you have certain products that have free shipping baked in, and you have free shipping in the name of the product. I get it by the way, it’s not a criticism, it’s just now when I see the five pound bag is now 19.99 but it should be twice as much as the 4.99, but I get it includes free shipping. So it’s a little confusing. It’s confusing. Just something I see that could be an improvement to help increase basket size, and you want to remove confusion from a customer. If they’re confused, they’re going to bounce, they’re going to leave.

Subscriptions for an online store

Ken: Right, right. The other thing that I wish we could do is since we have both on our bird seed side and our chicken feed side, they’re consumable, and they consume at a pretty normal rate. And I’ve had people ask: “Can we subscribe and save?” Which is one of the things that Chewy does really quite well. That’s something I don’t know how to do, I guess with Ecwid. Because they just want it to show up on their doorstep once every three weeks. Everybody’s happy. Northern customers generally will slow down bird feeding after the snow melts. Now our Southern customers, of course, it never snows. So they’re much more constant. But that helps us not to see that cycle. Is there a way to make my Ecwid store subscribe and save so that in three weeks, you just go with it?

Jesse: Yup. We’re going to have to take you offline for that one because it depends on what you use for payment. It depends on the amount of how you want a subscription to work. So absolutely. I get the business reason is for sure you want to do this, we want to get subscriptions going, but the how-to is a little bit more than we can do on a podcast because it depends on payment and a couple of other things. But yeah, I think you’re on the right track there. That’s a great way to go. Well, one of the things I was going to say real quick, cause I know we’re limited on time, we got another podcast coming up, but we definitely will reach out to you for more because we wanted to hear the origin story a little bit more of the backstory. It’s a unique case, the path that you took. So we definitely wanted to cover that, but we could probably talk to you for two more hours on certain things. I would just really want to throw out a couple one super fast question and then a couple of ideas. So, where do most of your traffic come from now? Do you have Google Analytics that shows you?

Ken: Yes, I do. It comes direct, either direct or through organic.

Richard: Yeah. Someone probably sees this in the brick and mortar store, or here’s the story somewhere else and just goes directly to your website?

Ken: Right.

Jesse: Or they see it on Amazon, and they Google it.

Ken: Yup. So they want to learn more. “Why is this more expensive?”

User-generated content

Richard: Got it. So that’s actually where I was going to go to two quick suggestions. I would make some sort of video on your site that they see right away that tells that story. And that story can be used in multiple places. It doesn’t have to only live on your site. So I think just somebody who’s looking this up somewhere else that doesn’t have the time. If a picture says a thousand words, then how many words does a video say? Especially if you keep it. And then secondarily, it would definitely make sure, and again, we’ll talk to you more offline, but get that Instagram integrated more and probably do more contests because this is an unbelievable opportunity for user-generated content for you. Having your customers taking pictures of birds, birds and their backyards is, it’s not going to have this great appeal cause you never know, but just getting them involved, some of them could have an ugly backyard, but it doesn’t matter. They’re interested in helping out.

Jesse: Now with the Instagram thing, you can take that post with your product so people can go there. And I think that starts to tell the story. You had mentioned you have the brand story and message. So we want to help you bring that out to the front of the site and all that. Those sales you get from Amazon, and the marketplace is you want them to buy from your website so you’re not paying that fee and we can get the subscription going. And so anyway, I wanna wrap it up here. Rich?

Richard: As I said, there are no last questions, but we will definitely be in touch. You have so many opportunities and we love that there’s just so many elements of giving back, even the pun of, with the better food, the birds will be giving back to the environment. (laughing) We’ll be in touch with you, and we’ll let you know when the episode comes out and look forward to talking with you.

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