Food retail in the Philippines is expected to swell to $60 billion in 2020 as lockdowns force more people to stay indoors. Add public apprehension of constrained indoor spaces to the mix, and it’s likely that we’ll witness further growth in 2021.
Entrepreneurs Paolo and Dianne Concepcion are well positioned to benefit from these changing consumer preferences. The husband and wife duo run Crate2Plate, an online grocery store which provides discerning shoppers in the Metro Manila area with high-quality products at reasonable prices.
Dianne and Paolo met several years ago during their corporate stint at consumer packaged goods giant Unilever. Both had sales jobs which required them to keep a pulse on the market, coordinate with large institutional buyers, and identify Filipino tastes and preferences.
This experience would hold them in good stead for their future pursuits.
Despite the relative comfort of working for one of the world’s largest companies, the entrepreneurial itch refused to go away. The duo would routinely sell food and other homemade creations at night markets, strategizing ways of bringing their ideas to life.
“I think [our experience] gave us the knowledge of what we know about the market. So we know how the supply chain works and how it all comes together,” outlines Dianne. “Our background really helped us grow the business further. I think if we look at our business right now, that would be one of our advantages versus the others who are trying to sell the same products as we have.”
Crate2Plate initially started as ‘Lemons and Greens’, a simple Facebook page that literally sold lemons and kale. At the time, Paolo had started to feel dissatisfied with his job as it was becoming repetitive and stagnant.
“I felt that I wasn't learning anything anymore. And then a change of management happened and that just pushed me away further from the corporate scene. I was sure that I wanted to go into business,” he explains.
Paolo reveals that he suffered from a digestive sickness that needed him to recuperate for 6 months. To help speed up the recovery process, he drank lemon water daily. Lemons and Greens was partly based on the recuperative benefits of this concoction, too.
“Dianne is better at spotting opportunities, but I’m the driving force behind the action. So I executed it. I literally just went around the commercial business districts trying to sell lemons,” laughs Paolo.
“Orders went through Facebook and then, later on, it went through Instagram and then, you know, all these channels. So it started with that. That was July, 2014.”
Lemons and Greens persisted as a Facebook page for many years. The shift to a Shopify-powered website only took place in 2018; till then its customer base placed orders over the phone or through text messages. By then, Dianne had joined the company too after a stint at Coca Cola. Now it was all hands on deck.
Was it difficult to convince customers to go to a website and place orders through a different portal?
“Only a specific demographic,” says Dianne. The rest were happy to make the change.
Paolo handled logistics, including communicating with third party partners, sourcing inventory, and setting up ad campaigns on Facebook, Instagram, and Google. Dianne took care of the website, organic social media channels, and customer support, a relationship they continue to today.
Scaling with Shopify
The decision to move to Shopify has been a game changer for Dianne and Paolo’s business.
“Shopify does the job of maybe two people, because of the functions that I can add and all the apps. It manages the inventory, the back end, and the analytics,” affirms Paolo.
“When you have a website, it helps introduce the company. You can see that Crate2Plate is apart from the others. And I think that in a busy marketplace, that's a straight need. That helps customer retention and the credibility of our brand.”
Shopify’s exemplary payments infrastructure has also provided Crate2Plate with an opportunity to move upmarket. They’ve begun to stock many more premium items, safe in the knowledge that their clientele have access to credit cards and that Shopify provides a seamless checkout experience.
The importance of positioning
Dianne and Paolo admit that as a boutique online grocery, they’re not in the business of competing with the large retailers that can benefit from economies of scale. However, they can outflank them in terms of access to speciality products, quality, and reliability.
And that’s what Crate2Plate aims to achieve: Providing its customers with an unmatched shopping experience and quality that they cannot find elsewhere.
“You'll hear us as maybe one of the higher priced online grocery stores, but what the recurring customers would know, what our loyal customers would know, is that a lot of work goes behind choosing each fruit. We have dedicated cold storage for the fruits, and we offer them products that they don’t mind paying a small premium for,” says Paolo.
“We're actually very proud of what we have achieved with the website. We're the first who did online delivery of premium fruit products. Not even the big retailers here, but it's us who did it first,” adds Dianne.
Advice for others
Given that the duo have been in entrepreneurship for over 6 years now, what advice do they have to share with others like them, hungry to venture out on their own?
“Start young, because everything that you will learn in business, if not just most, you'll learn on the job, you'll learn on the fly,” maintains Paolo.
“You learn 90%, if not 100% percent on the job. And so I think you start young, because you should cherish all of the mistakes you make and when you're young, it's like, that's the point of your life, that you can waste money on business. So it's better to be just young and you know, when you're able to make mistakes. That's my advice.”
“It’s important to take ownership,” adds Dianne. “As a startup, we're at the point that we can't really delegate to anyone right now, because we're still trying to learn what works, what doesn't work. There's still so much to learn. There's still a lot of things to prove.”
“If you don't follow your gut and your belief in your opportunity, you're just putting off a great chance. Because when you look at us, we really started with literally lemon and kale, which was pretty much available elsewhere. And now we’re here,” she concludes.
While they’re happy with the progress made so far, both Dianne and Paolo understand the need to keep working hard and innovating. First on their list is to expand the product selection by finding other unique items that would resonate with their customers. A close second is to improve their supplier base in order to minimize costs as much as possible. And expansion to different cities in the Philippines is also a priority, while maintaining quality levels.
“It’s okay to allow yourself to make mistakes as long as you’re following your gut. A lot of people now are looking for that one big ticket thing. For us, we were correct in just trying to find something that would work and allowing ourselves, forgiving ourselves to make mistakes. That's been crucial to our growth till now and will continue to be in the future,” explains Paolo.