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商业 - 科技

食品电商仍在苦苦探索成功秘方

Deena Shanker 2013年07月18日

电商的年销售额已经高达2,250亿美元,食品电商自然也想从中分一杯羹。然而,在线销售食品与兜售名牌手袋完全不同,而理解这些差异至关重要。高调上线的食品网站Gilt Taste最终黯然消亡的经历证明,食品电商行业面临着独一无二的挑战。

    2011年5月,电商网站Gilt Groupe推出了旗下最新的销售网站——美食网站Gilt Taste。就在此前数周,Gilt Groupe刚刚从包括高盛集团(Goldman Sachs)在内的投资者手中筹集到1.38亿美元的投资资金,此轮融资给予该公司的估值大约为10亿美元。

    当时,美食家们都在庆祝露丝•雷切尔的回归。2009年11月,康泰纳仕公司(Condé Nast)关闭了旗下的《美食家》杂志(Gourmet),雷切尔被迫放弃了杂志主编的宝座。聘请雷切尔担任评论顾问的Gilt承诺,美食网站Gilt Taste为饮食伦理主义者(指一个人仅食用符合一定道德准则的食物,特别是有机食品和人道饲养的肉类、家禽和鱼类——译者注)提供“难以找到的手工食物”(他们获得这些食物的机会有限)——比如“住在纽约市以外地区的人”,同时提供给雷切尔带来名望的那类评论内容。

    Gilt Groupe赖以成名的是大幅打折而限量库存的实时闪购模式,借此把纽约风格的样品销售带到全世界。跟它不同的是,Gilt Taste自称建立的目的是成为一个 “奢侈品牌”,以高端价格销售高端食品。然而这个模式并没有奏效,今年5月24日,Gilt Taste悄然停业了。

    但正如一批已经成立、正在增长以及前景有望的食品-科技初创公司所表明的那样,Gilt Taste的失败并不能证明地方食品经济无法在年销售额高达2,250亿美元的电子商务产业中分到一杯羹。然而,Gilt Taste的滑铁卢的确表明,在线销售食品与兜售名牌手袋完全不同,而理解这些差异至关重要。

Gilt犯了什么错误?

    Gilt Taste的消亡,以及诸如早期在线食品杂货零售初创公司Webvan和在线食品市场与订付服务网站Foodzie等电子商务网站的失败存在多方面的原因。

    食品的根本特性——至少食品电商运动所理解的食品特性,是直接与其初创模式不一致的。任何农场、城市、地区或国家,都不会有相同的地方食品体系,因此相关标准无法以一种简单——或者甚至不是那么简单——的算法来加以估算。Lifestyle Zen是一家为包括食品-科技初创公司在内的创新企业家提供服务的律师事务所。这家律师事务所的老板帕特里斯•帕金斯认为这是期望进军食品领域的技术型人才当中普遍存在的一个误解。“大家认为,只要拥有一个能干的程序员团和创意人才,找到合适的团队,差不多很快就可以把某个创意从构思阶段推进到执行阶段。”但是,她进一步表示,很多时候,“人们并没有进行充分的市场调研,无法真正保证自己所提供的产品一定有市场需求。”

    Gilt当时还面临着其他挑战。尽管它的网站流量颇为可观——平均每月吸引10万名独立访问者,但它的评论内容并没有拉动销售。美食家可能很乐意如饥似渴地阅读有关新盐或者最美味的意大利熏火腿的文章,但是,这并不意味着她会购买这些产品。与食品杂货不同,手工食品通常被认为是一个利基市场。它们可以作为很不错的礼物,以及偶尔的美味享受,但大多数人——即便是美食家——也不会过于频繁地购买高档松露油。而有意购买这些产品的客户通常会在他们可以看到、闻到以及品尝这些产品的某个地方采购,比如:在农贸市场、在全食超市(Whole Foods),或者在食品手工制作者自己的实体店。

    In May 2011, just weeks after raising $138 million in financing from investors including Goldman Sachs (GS) and scoring a valuation of "roughly $1 billion," Gilt Groupe unveiled its latest sale site, Gilt Taste.

    Foodies celebrated the return of Ruth Reichl, who had been forced to abdicate her throne as editor in chief of Condé Nast's Gourmet when the magazine folded in November 2009. With Reichl as editorial advisor, Gilt promised a site offering "artisanal hard-to-find foods" for ethical eaters with limited access to such products -- e.g. "people who live outside New York City" -- as well as the kind of editorial content that made Reichl famous.

    But unlike the heavily discounted, limited inventory, real-time flash sales that brought New York-style sample sales to the world -- and made Gilt Groupe famous -- Gilt Taste was built to be a self-described "luxury brand," selling high-end food at high-end prices. This model, it turned out, didn't work, and Gilt Taste quietly folded on May 24 this year.

    But as a bevy of established, growing, and up-and-coming food-tech startups are making clear, Gilt Taste's failure is not proof that local food economies can't get a piece of the $225 billion e-commerce industry. It is a sign, though, that selling food online is different than peddling designer handbags, and understanding those differences is key to success.

What went wrong at Gilt?

    There are a number of explanations for Gilt Taste's demise, as well as failed e-commerce food sites like Webvan, an early online grocery startup, and Foodzie, an online food marketplace and subscription service.

    The very nature of food, at least as the food movement envisions it, is directly at odds with the startup model. No farm, city, region, or state is going to have the same local food system, so scaling can't be computed with a simple -- or even not so simple -- algorithm. Patrice Perkins, owner of Lifestyle Zen, a law firm for creative entrepreneurs including food-tech startups, sees this as a common misunderstanding among tech types looking to jump into the food space. "You have a team of talented programmers and creative people, and if you have the right team in place, you literally can get something from ideation to execution overnight." But, she adds, very often, "there's not enough market research to really make sure there's a need for the product that you offer."

    Gilt faced other challenges as well. Despite its respectable site traffic -- averaging 100,000 unique visitors every month -- editorial content did not translate into high sales. A foodie may happily gorge herself on articles about new salts or the best prosciutto, but that doesn't mean she is going to buy those products. Unlike groceries, artisanal foods are generally considered a niche market. They make great gifts, as well as delicious occasional treats, but most people -- even foodies -- aren't buying high-end truffle oil too often. And the customers who are in the market for these products are usually buying them somewhere they can see, smell, and taste the goods first: at the farmers market, at Whole Foods, or at the artisan's own brick-and-mortar shop.

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