Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Nature of Four Worlds Bakery Customers (updated with feedback)

Last week I published a piece in my weekly email about my relationship as a baker with my customers; and the unique relationship with customers at Four Worlds Bakery. Here is what I wrote:

Insights. I was thinking about the evolution of Four Worlds Bakery last week; especially the unique relationship I enjoy with my customers. During the first year of operation, I noticed an emerging pattern with sales. New customers would show up with great excitement and sometimes even obsession. After a month or two the orders would get smaller and, for many customers, they would just stop ordering after awhile; or just order every month or once every two months. And there was a constant stream of first or second time customers who didn't order again at all. Infusion of new customers has always kept my sales in growth mode, even during seasonal lows tides in the bakery business.

But this pattern of customers falling off worried me until my recent insight on what might be happening and the result. Given my unique distribution system, one really has to go out of their way to get Four Worlds Bakery products. You have to figure out this crazy system, plan ahead and order, remember to pick it up during specific times, actually pick it up at maybe inconvenient locations, and then remember send in a check or pay somehow (or get pestered by me reminding you to pay your balance). And of course, you have to have a certain toleration and appreciation for the inconsistencies inherent in the use of natural yeast starters and my constant need to experiment with very established products. This system will not work or fit into many peoples lives at all. And after the New-ness of the products fade, it becomes a burden few are willing to go through to get a weekly order. But it's the few who have continued to order regularly that is the base of customers that keeps Four Worlds going on a day-to-day basis. And that base is very diverse economically (ie on their income levels).

And that base has grown slowly into a very consistent, loyal following that is the dream of every baker to have. As much as I am after quality ingredients and quality processes to make bread, I am after quality customers with a long, established relationship with the bakery. And it takes time to develop such a strong foundation. So I am no longer worried about customers who disappear for awhile; and I'm more focused on building on the relationship I have with those who have toughed out the inconveniences of my ordering system; those who "really want what I have to offer." And it's that extra burden you have to jump through that really tests your appreciation for the kinds of breads I am baking. And it's this feeling of serving you that keeps me motivated in the long hours I have been working to build up this bakery organically.

So here is some of the comments customers wrote back to me with:

It is true it is tougher to buy FWB bread compared to Arnold's. However, you
overlooked the value of ritual to individuals. I ride my bike to Pennypack Farm
on Friday afternoons to get the bread order. What is that worth? Your
system isn't so crazy--you've admirably kept the prepay balances correct (ain't
easy and I am impressed). As long as that runs well, the only complaints will be
about bread (and they're few). You have a great model. Indeed, you blaze a trail
for other artists. I ask myself, when I retire, what business could I start and
run like Michael has done? --Customer in Horsham

Michael - thought your insights on customer loyalty were right on. for me, i find that i have a tendency to overorder and the freezer always has some of your breads!! i might add that those of us who live in groups have to negotiate with others even down to what bread we will eat!! -Customer from Havertown area

I'm happy to call myself one of your loyal customers! We were without your products for 2 weeks and I'm so happy to be able to enjoy them again:) --Customer from Havertown area

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