Delivering direct to customers seems to offer the Holy Grail for the small business a way to expand your takings without adding massively to your overheads. You get the potential to sell to far more people and create new wholesale or catering markets, as well as boosting demand for your specialities and even ready meals.
However, adding a service is not without some costs. Someone is going to have to do the deliveries and prepare for them, so you are going to have to factor in manpower and possibly increased demands on space.
If you don't already have it, you are going to have to buy or hire suitable refrigerated transport, as well as insuring and maintaining it and possibly even sprucing it up. You are going to have to do a spot of marketing to tell people about your new service and, if you choose to go the whole hog with an online ordering system, you may also need to fork out for a new website, or at least add to an existing one, as well as maintaining it.
Many butchers have already cottoned on to some of the benefits of home deliveries some doing very nicely out of it for many years but most of these confine themselves to covering the basics. "A lot of our members deliver to catering customers," says Graham Bidston, chief executive of the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders (NFMFT). "Many will have elderly customers to whom they very kindly drop off 450g of mince on the way home."
Andy Crump, owner of Crump & Son Family Butchers in Wootton Bassett, is one such butcher. He added a home delivery service to his repertoire about two-and-a-half years ago, delivering to customers within a 15-mile radius of the shop.
"It's not a massive part of the business," he says. "But anything we do this way is a bonus." Andy says many of his home delivery customers are regulars who are elderly or housebound; for others, their working hours make visiting the shop difficult. However, most of his delivery business comes from two long-established catering customers.
So far, he has resisted having an online ordering system because, he says, it would be of little benefit to his existing customers, whether catering or domestic. "It's not like ordering a tin of beans," he explains. "The catering customers know exactly what they want, but individual customers are often not sure until they either see it or until they ask advice."
Jonathan Edge, managing director of FL Edge and Son of East Harland, Norfolk, agrees that cyberspace may not be the perfect forum for selecting meat and warns that it can also be an expensive way of operating. His business, which has been doing deliveries for many years, added automated online ordering to its repertoire three years ago. "Even in three years, it hasn't yet paid for itself," he says.
The business recently suspended this online ordering system because the web host had gone bust, but is planning to get it running again after Christmas. Jonathan says this is because it is a valuable tool for supplying some of its larger customers the business pre-packs for other stores, as well as supplying caterers and individual customers. "We are going to be looking for ways to cut costs this time though,"he adds.
While a sophisticated web presence can certainly help to increase sales, smaller businesses can operate online at a less costly level. Emma Gair, managing director of web consultant WadeGair, says adding home deliveries to your services does not mean you have to invest in automated ordering systems.
"You need to decide whether you want your customers to use your website just to order or to go through the whole buying process online," she explains.
"Ordering online is a straightforward process of filling in a form on the screen. Someone within your business then needs to contact the customer to take payment or this could also be done on delivery. Alternatively, you can have a fully automated system with payments being dealt with via a secure online system, such as PayPal." Not surprisingly, the latter option takes far more time and money to set up, but does claim fewer personnel resources in the long term.
Whatever the system, Gair says, the key is making it as easy as possible for site visitors to buy. "Make sure that the 'order' or 'buy' message is clearly displayed," she says. "There are few things more frustrating than visiting a website, wanting to buy and having no clear idea of how to do this."
Investment in website changes may well be one decision you would prefer to shelve until a little further down the track, but it is not an essential element of the home delivery equation. You have still got the meat and the transport and there are other ways to communicate with potential customers. Placing an ad in a local newspapers or magazine is one way of telling people what you have to offer. Printed promotional material, such as leaflets and fliers, is another.
You could make either these a regular weekly or monthly event, highlighting special deals, seasonal lines, specialities and even ready meals. Why should you not compete with local takeaways? The only difference with your versions of curry and lasagne apart from top-quality fresh meat of course would be that customers would have to pop them into the oven.
Prices for promotional material vary greatly, depending on size, number and whether you go for a gloss or matt finish, but, to give you an idea, you should expect to pay in the region of £100 for 1,000 A5 flyers. If you do go down this route, it is worth taking time to get your printed image right and maybe even getting professional help. You want to catch people's eyes, to whet their appetite and to make them understand that you have a professional approach to all aspects of your business. It may sound pedantic, but a spelling mistake or grammatical howler can imply exactly the opposite and put potential customers off.
Whatever system of communication you choose, transport will be an issue. The NFMFT's Bidston points out that there are legal points to keep in mind: "There is a geographic limit on deliveries and hygiene and temperature regulations extend to transport," he says.
While this will not be news to most butchers and many will already be equipped with suitable wheels, the image factor is worth considering here. You want to make the most of your new or expanded service and having a smart branded vans in the public eye may help. Until you are ready for that sort of investment, though, there are hire firms. Long-term hire charges at nationwide provider Cool Running, for example, range from £28.54 per day excluding VAT for a VW Caddy to £48.96 for a Group F large van.
There is one more factor to consider regarding deliveries. Will they be during the daytime when deliveries to customers working in offices and factories would be a possibility or is it something that you would only have time to do in the evenings?
So, is it for you? Why not give it a trial run - the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury's are doing it, so invade their territory for a change. Get some leaflets made up and start distributing. Take orders by phone at this stage and, if you need transport, hire it. But remember, home deliveries are still part of your main business not an add-on that you can forget about and Gair's further website advice has cautionary echoes for all aspects. "Be realistic about what you can offer," she says. "Don't promise timelines you cannot meet and look after your remote customers as you would those who walk into your shop."