When your organization’s ultimate mission is to make products that help and heal women overcoming abuse, trafficking, and addiction, how do you build an online sales strategy that supports your mission without overwhelming it? This is a question CEO Hal Cato has wrestled with since his start with Thistle Farms, one of the country’s most innovative product-based social enterprises, which employs women to create products that provide healing, hope, and freedom.
While its online shop handles a lot of product sales for the organization, there is opportunity to scale these efforts by establishing a retail presence on Amazon. With Amazon’s 100 million unique monthly customers and 500 million stockkeeping units (SKU’s) lining the digital shelves, breaking in and breaking through has proven to be exceptionally difficult for social enterprises like Thistle Farms. Still, success on the leading online platform would yield tremendous opportunities for the women of Thistle Farms and the growth of the organization.
“Amazon is like the wild, wild west and it’s always changing. It’s growing so fast and brands are being pirated. It’s crazy, and we didn’t have the expertise on staff or the time to try to figure it out without getting our lunch eaten,” Hal says.
By making this a top priority for Thistle Farms’ collaboration with Stand Together Foundation, an organization that provides business management training for nonprofits across the country, the wheels were set in motion for a pivotal partnership with Stand Together partner and business leader John Ghiorso and his company, Orca Pacific, which specializes in sales and marketing on the Amazon platform.
“Primarily, our clients are medium to Fortune 500 consumer product brands,” says John. “With my involvement in Stand Together, it probably took me longer than it should have to realize there was an opportunity here to be able to use my expertise to help accelerate the growth of some of their social entrepreneurs with products.”
The ecommerce turf and rules of the game are changing fast. “I’m seeing the expectation for quick turnaround increase, and free shipping,” says Hal. “All of the bells and whistles that online retailers are jingling out there to get people to come to their site — that’s hard for social enterprises. I can’t offer free shipping on all purchases. Our margins on average are between 35% and 50%, not 100% – 200%, which is what most other companies are. It adds up.”
Though increased sales and profit could have a significant upside to Thistle Farms, such as more hires, higher wages, improved benefits like 401(k) matching, dollar-for-dollar savings incentives, and more robust health insurance, Thistle Farms is careful to discern between opportunities and threats.
“We haven’t had the ability, time, or resources to launch our catalog on Amazon and we knew it was time to make that step. We want to see if it could be a new sales channel for us and how big a sales channel it could be.”Hal Cato
And John’s team has been leading them through it. “We’re building out their content, we’re helping them make sure all their product is in stock, that it’s priced right. We’re starting to now run some paid media more in a test environment to see if there’s [a return on investment] that we can hopefully then put more money into. All ultimately with the mission of significantly growing their top line business on Amazon in a sustainable fashion for them.”
Stand Together Foundation is excited to invest in Thistle Farms’ product line and eager to see results from early tests that John’s team has implemented in the Amazon ecosystem. “We’re certainly open to supporting as we learn more and as we see where we can really help start to move the needle for Thistle Farms and for other groups on Amazon,” says Mollie Dougherty, engagement manager with Stand Together Foundation. “But I think we see these two projects as a great learning opportunity to see how organizations with a social mission can really perform on the platform, leveraging John and his team’s very generous support and knowledge.”
Prior to the Amazon booster-shot partnership, Stand Together Foundation helped Thistle Farms better understand its vision and core capabilities, which led to revamping its website and overhauling its sales strategy to put an increased focus on direct sales versus wholesale channels. Two years ago, roughly half of sales were through wholesale and half through retail. Now it’s 25 percent wholesale and 75 percent retail—a win for margins.
Now, Stand Together Foundation is trying to help get Thistle Farms products in more people’s hands and over the next year help get the brand ready for a full Amazon e-commerce experience.
“I really want to position Thistle Farms with national recognition as a go-to for issues regarding women’s freedom, trafficking, sobriety, all of the above.”Hal Cato
“There’s just a much wider range of possibilities when it comes to success on Amazon,” says John. “You can be on the site and sell nothing, but you can also create and chart your own destiny as a brand and not be kind of locked into a predetermined amount of traffic like you would be in traditional retail.”
At the end of last year, Thistle Farms was featured on PBS NewsHour and Amazon sales spiked. “They’re all new customers,” says Hal. “Didn’t know anything about Thistle Farms, so they just got on Amazon, typed in our name, and we almost cleared our entire Amazon inventory.”
“I keep waiting for Amazon to have a significant social enterprise component of their site, where if you only want to shop sustainable brands that are making an impact, here they are. Think about what they could do,” says Hal.
And for John, it’s meaningful to him and Orca Pacific to participate in employment-generating enterprises like Thistle Farms.
“Employment is such an important underpinning of the health of our society. If we can make sure that folks that are coming out of really rough situations are able to have a consistent job, then all the other support that these organizations offer them goes far beyond impacting that single person,” he says. “What that does for society at-large can’t be overstated. And so, if we’re able to play some small role in that by selling more of their stuff on Amazon, which ultimately is our goal, then that’s something that we’re pretty excited about.”
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