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Deliciously Ella – how the brand adopted D2C during the pandemic

Plant-based brand Deliciously Ella did not intend to sell directly to customers, but shifting unsold stock during the pandemic opened digital doors for the brand

Deliciously Ella is a healthy, plant-based brand started by Ella Woodward in 2012 as a result of an illness she suffered while she was at university, which was eased by eating non-processed vegan foods as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.

Speaking at the 2022 Retail Tech Show 10 years since it launched, Woodward explained: “I started it [without] the intention of it becoming what it has…You have a personal problem that you want to solve, and in solving it you realise that millions of people have the same problem – could you solve it for them too?”

Because of the lack of information about plant-based cooking available 10 years ago, Woodward said her recipe website, which she started to teach herself how to cook in a way that supported her health, grew extremely quickly, and before she knew it a “niche” online community rallied around the brand who then eventually became the brand’s customers.

While joining and becoming successful through social media platforms is a lot harder in 2022, when Woodward started her business 10 years ago there were only a few people sharing content about raw vegan cooking, and her website clocked up around 130 million hits in its first few years.

Woodward said: “It wasn’t a business at that point, it was a community, and I was reacting to the community needs and requests.”

What began as a fast-growing recipe website became an app in 2014, and then a cookbook in 2015.

By this time, data from the app proved that customers wanted more products and recipes, and because there was little of this on offer in the supermarkets, it was an easy avenue to follow and the businesses launched retail products for supermarkets and coffee shops.

But, Woodward said: “Anyone who has been involved in a startup or a scaleup can completely appreciate the fact that everything changes almost by the minute.”

Peanuts or cashews?

For the first time since its launch, the business is recruiting a social media team, a timeline which Woodward admits is “insane”.

“Up until my first daughter was born almost three years ago, I used to reply to every single message. When she was about six weeks old, I was still replying to people in the middle of the night,” she said.

During a late night with her new born, answering questions such as, “I really want to make this recipe, but can I swap peanuts for cashews?”, Woodward said she gave herself a “reality check”.

“Trying to balance being part of the building of the business and raising two children definitely changed how much I was able to do and toned down those couple of more ‘nuts’ decisions I was making – it could be any nut,” she added.

The pandemic had a massive impact on the retail sector, with pandemic lockdowns forcing physical stores to close and causing an increased shift towards online shopping – for Deliciously Ella, the past two years has been “difficult”, with supply chain challenges being the main issue.

Woodward explained that some of the first businesses to close as a result of lockdown, such as Costa and Starbucks, were also some of Deliciously Ella’s biggest retail customers, and so the brand had “hundreds and thousands of pounds of stock and absolutely nowhere for it to go”. So, the brand decided to go direct to customer (D2C).

“We set up a web shop in a week. We said we’d never go D2C, but there was an obvious opportunity there and we managed to sell all that stock on heavy discount,” said Woodward.

By contrast, in January 2022, widespread cases of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 meant the brand had no product in January, which made it difficult to fulfil orders.

Luckily, Woodward said the business has been adaptable, always striving to be able to “change at lightspeed” when needed. Because of the “rate of change” over the past 10 years, especially as a result of the pandemic, Woodward added: “I never would have expected us to be where we are today, even a few years ago, so I feel really reticent to say, ‘This is where we’ll be in two years’.”

While selling products through a website had never been on the cards for the brand before the pandemic, Deliciously Ella kept its web shop, which became useful when launching in other countries – in 2022, the brand launched in Austria, with plans to launch in Germany and in the US.

In the US especially, Woodard said the D2C element of the business will be “a much bigger part” of the business than in the UK, where the brand “didn’t want to jeopardise” the established retail business it already had in place.

“In building the brand, it has been easier to do that with...traditional retail, but [online] has become a sizeable part of the business and will be more important to us as we launch internationally.”

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