While the bakery category has yet to really crack the code on e-commerce, there is plenty of opportunity and growth potential in that segment. This was the consensus from the stage during the American Bakers Association (ABA) Convention, held March 27-29 in La Quinta, Calif., during the Bakery and the Consumer: The Virtual Connection panel.

The panel included experts from various e-commerce sectors: Amanda Alexan, director of business development, Food Service Direct; Omar Haque, vice president and general manager and head of e-commerce, Acelerada and Bimbo Bakeries USA, Horsham, Pa.; Kasey Jamison, senior director of sales, large customer category, Instacart; and Jonna Parker, principal, Fresh Center of Excellence, IRI.

Despite consumers’ accelerated acceptance of e-commerce due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the majority of consumers still approach their shopping from an omnichannel perspective, rather than being solely dedicated to in-person or online. That being said, online does present many opportunities for bakery products as well as some pivoting in strategy.

For example, Haque pointed out that while many may think the digital shelf is endless, it really isn’t.

“The digital shelf is crowded and shrinking,” he said.

And while large players in the industry may have leverage to get prime shelf space in store, that doesn’t guarantee prime virtual shelf space. Baking companies must develop their own search engine strategies to ensure they are front-and-center on e-commerce platforms. Jamison revealed that “bread” is the No. 3 most searched term on Instacart’s platform, revealing just how critical it is for baking companies to ensure they show up early in those results to entice consumers.

Instacart sees three types of shoppers, and it’s important for brands to have a strategy for each type as they can be quite fluid. There’s the shopper who uses Instacart’s search function to locate items (who represents 40% of Instacart shoppers), the virtual aisle browser who pursues the sales (30%), and the repeat shopper who simply repeat-purchases previous carts (30%).

“You have to reach each of these shoppers because if you skip one of them, your competition will be there,” Jamison explained.

This also becomes important as these three categories of shoppers are not rigid. The search shopper will one day move to be a repeat-buy shopper, and so Jamison noted that it’s necessary to reach all three.

Images are also critical in the online shopping space, Parker pointed out, as it can be difficult to compete online next to the competition.

“How does your croissant stand out in a long line of photos of plain croissants,” she said.

Alexan recommended four different types of images that have proved helpful to shoppers: the hero image, editorial image, end use image and hand-to-product ratio image. The hero image is a straightforward shot of the product, while the editorial image aims to provide a visual for the product’s written description. The end use image can show shoppers how the product may be used, and the hand-to-product ratio photo gives them a sense of the size.

Another critical area for bakery to improve upon is the in-store bakery.

“No one has replicated the in-store bakery experience online yet,” Jamison said. “You can do that by communicating your brand story or driving them to your brand page and how your brand appeals to different brand usages and occasions. While no one has cracked that yet, I think there’s a lot of opportunity to communicate to your consumer.”

Parker pointed out that the industry has attempted to simply shoehorn what has worked with in-person shopping at the in-store bakery, but online requires a different approach.

“If you think about how most baked products are used in the in-store bakery, there are thawed and baked in-house,” she said. “Why couldn’t we provide instructions to our consumers in an online environment, so consumers can have the same fresh-baked bread that they love at 5 p.m.?”

With a US household penetration of more than 85%  for Instacart, and online grocery sales booming overall, it’s clear that this channel has become a part of the shopping landscape. And while learning how to optimize the virtual space for a brand can be intimidating, Jamison had this advice:

“Just show up. Don’t wait to see if online shopping is a fad or a trend. It’s here to stay. My second piece of advice is to invest in how you show up.”