I started my career in telecoms before setting up my first start-up in 2003. It was called G3net and it specialized in IP telephony. I sold it four years later. Besides this love for entrepreneurship, I have always wanted to make a difference.
In 2008, with my associate at the time, we started to think about business ideas. It was important for us to reconcile our desire to make a positive impact -a small contribution to the preservation of the environment- with the willingness to develop something big in the domain of e-commerce. This is why we decided to go for the online distribution of organic products.
This sector, in addition to ticking all the boxes of our wishlist, presented a unique opportunity as it was not, or hardly, digitized back then. For instance, Naturalia, La Vie Claire and Biocoop, organic stores in France, had no e-commerce site.
At that time we were far from anticipating the extent to which digital would be central during our adventure. e-commerce, data and tech brought major competitive benefits on the main pillars of our activity: the distribution, the offer, the customers and the team.
This is how we managed to leverage digital to develop Europe’s e-commerce leader in organic products, Greenweez.
The vision: distributing organic online
In the 90s and 2000s, organic products were initially reserved for a few initiates and wealthy people. Bio food was something especially consumed by young educated urban consumers.
And this was clear when looking at the numbers. In 2008, the French organic food sector only represented €2,6 bn in sales. It multiplied by three (!!) in 2017 to reach €7.9 bn. In 2020, the market continued to rise at full speed to a total value of €9,3 bn.
When looking at the competition in 2008, we had two rather small competitors in France: GreenRepublic, launched in the same year and that we bought a couple years later, and ToutAllantVert, which had around 2,000 references on their website. So there was plenty of room for us! Actually, having a look at one of the most well-known organic store’s brands present in the US and in the UK, Whole Foods, you will realize that they started their e-commerce business when they were acquired by Amazon in 2017.
However, our purpose was broader than surfing the wave of a growing market. From the minute one, we fought to translate this positive trend into the idea of democratizing access to organic food: we wanted to make sure that every person in France could eat better, tastier and healthier products.
This is where the development of a digital player became interesting. We thought that e-commerce could bring two main advantages:
- Distributing online gave us immediate national coverage. At the time many areas in France did not have specialized organic stores nearby.
- Besides reach, a pure player model also seemed to be a good solution to keep our structural costs as low as possible and therefore to be able to offer very attractive sales prices to our customers.
While we launched digitally, we were not shy to multiply the number of online touchpoints. We tried to leverage a few digital marketing levers and we started with SEO (making sure that we were in the top results on the keywords we were targeting), adwords (using a long-tail strategy in order to bid on a huge number of keywords with limited budget) and Google shopping (as additional point of contact for the customer and increase our visibility on the world’s search engine).
> The true story behind this – We did everything by ourselves for a few years and we hired a dedicated person for webmarketing only in 2013. It was a big challenge but we put a lot of passion into it and it was extremely rewarding to see what worked and what did not, learning along the way.
A 100% digital offering at the heart of our business
The core of our business, as a retailer, is the product assortment we offer to our customers. Being a digital player has freed us from all the physical constraints linked to store and shelf space, allowing us to develop the broadest and deepest assortment possible.
We rapidly developed a twofold competitive advantage over physical networks:
- Physical retailers would often be limited to 5,000 references per store whereas we could claim 30,000 references (!) at launch.
- Physical retailers were often focused on a large food offering while we could cover both food and non-food products.
This contributed to making us a reference player, not by the strength of our brand or our expertise, both still embryonic at the time, but simply because our customers had a larger choice on our website.
We were, for example, the only organic distributor to sell baby food AND baby bottles on the same website. Actually, BPA-free baby bottles were actually one of our most successful products during the first two years!
To reach our current size of assortment, we had to develop simple, fast and automated referencing processes. For this reason, we built a powerful in-house tech solution with simple technologies -HTML, PHP and SQL. This work was led by our CTO, Eric Fournil, and his team. It enabled suppliers to fill in an automated matrix and we were also able to recover and resize product photos.
This tool allowed us to list new brands (today we have close to 1 000 different brands!) and products in record time: only a few days between the first meeting with the brand and the day the products are on sale on the site. These processes can take up to several months for our physical competitors.
This speed of referencing has given us a lot of agility. Every year, more than a third of our assortment is renewed, being able to follow the market’s trends.
Finally, and this is perhaps what we are most proud of today, we are the platform of choice for young brands that are starting out, and they are legion in our sector. Young brands like Iswari for super food, Go nuts with nut-based products and Juneo for neonatal milk powder can rapidly see their products on sale on Greenweez and use all the data we provide (sales per product, traffic on product pages, etc.) to develop their offering and better understand customer expectations.
Being customer centric thanks to digital
It is in the “customer” dimension that our digital approach has also proved to be extremely beneficial.
First, the already mentioned extensive use of digital marketing enabled us to quickly find customers throughout France across all socio-professional categories. Aside from marketing acquisition, we developed a systematic approach to gather valuable information on:
- Navigation data such as the products typed in the search bar (thanks to Elastic Search), the traffic per page or the bounce rate for each page.
- Purchase data such as average basket, basket composition, products frequently bought together…
- And socio-demographic data such as gender, age (if filled in) or location.
All this to say that we managed to build a reasonably comprehensive customer profile without having any physical interaction with him / her.
We also wanted to crunch the data to see what we could learn from it. For example, we tried to determine the correlation between the average shopping basket and the frequency of purchase, as well as the link between socio-demo data and particular affinities. To make it happen, we uploaded the data on BigQuery, we aggregated, cleaned and consolidated it on BigQuery again and finally, we made it available for visualization on Data Studio.
The purpose of this data collection was to improve the site’s UX, the product offer and even the way we communicate with our customers.
One of the examples I like more is the fact that, very early on, we started to segment our customer database according to the frequency of our customers’ purchases and the typology of their carts. Today, all this accumulated data allows us to have a detailed knowledge of our customers, fine tuning our approach to propose a customer experience that meets their expectations as much as possible. For instance, when we identify some customers as “parents”, we send them a parent-themed newsletter.
In other words, we strove to create a strong data-centric culture in the company, making this one of our first priorities. At Greenweez, each and everyone of the employees of Greenweez knows how to use Data Studio. And we made a conscious effort to make it work and train everyone: we have one “Data Studio lead” per team. This person can create his / her own dashboards while staying in touch with the rest of the team for any help. The important thing is that if Greeweez’s associates are data oriented, it means we are customer oriented: It is thanks to data that we can better know the customer and answer to his / her needs.
In addition to data, the excellence in the communication with our customers was also critical for us. Again, we went for a broad, fully digital approach combining e-mail, chat and online customer communities. In fact, we often communicate on how we developed our expertise thanks to what all our customers have taught us, and this is not a sales pitch!
Our customers’ feedback is essential to us. What a gold mine it is to have hundreds of thousands of product reviews on the site…
Since the start, we measured customer satisfaction (the famous “NPS” or Net Promoter Score) with digital tools like Trustpilot. I look to NPS every day: It is THE key measure of the health of Greenweez’s business.
Automating basic stuff
The last contribution of digital to Greenweez -to be fully honest the one we anticipated the least but that proved to be extra effective- was the impact of digital on the company itself and on the people who make it live every day.
Among the founding values of Greenweez, employee happiness was very high on the list. I am convinced that happy employees are exponentially better at their jobs and multiply happy customers. We tried to place at the heart of our business model from the very beginning. Besides the simplification of our associates’ work and automating repetitive and tedious tasks, we have set up several other actions. We regularly organize group activities outside the office, we sponsor humanitarian projects and we have instituted many internal communication rituals.
Given that our company’s activity is fully digital, it is therefore necessarily highly computerized. We put a lot of energy into working with each employee to understand what repetitive tasks he / she had to perform, in order to automate -and simplify- as much as possible.
The goal was to enable our employees to focus on added value tasks such as in-depth customer behaviour analysis or the development of win-win relationships with suppliers. These activities create a better customer experience while generating a higher sense of reward for our people.
How did we do it? A few examples to give you a taste of it:
- We developed an IT back office for direct procurement. It was a true innovation compared to our competitors, since processes like sourcing or procurement-to-pay were totally streamlined and easy.
- We set up pre-filled forms with a maximum of information and suggestions made by AI on the quantities to order according to turnover rates, seasonality and other data.
- We created an ambassador system where customers could respond to other customers directly on the website, on the product pages. This was cutting-edge at the time since it was before the rise of last-gen CRM tools.
All this great work on automation was again led by our CTO Eric and his IT team. We have developed nearly everything in-house since 2008!
All in all, I acknowledge, 13 years after launch, the importance of digital to make a great product available to everyone, develop merchandising agility throughout the life of our entrepreneurial project, understand customers’ needs and wants to make decisions based on data and strengthen the value of the human team and relationship within the collective Greenweez project.
Digital allowed us, within a few years, to make a place for ourselves among all the physical brands. Indeed, globally, we have over 2 million unique visitors on average per month, and in total, we have registered over 5 million orders since our launch! We are now 200 employees and we are present in six countries: France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. Our next challenge is to increase our assortment to more than 100,000 organic products moving into new categories requested by our customers such as fashion or soft mobility.
Check our other articles about e-commerce projects.