PALM SPRINGS, CA —Something’s afoot online: The digital shelf is crowded, but, at the same time, it’s shrinking. And while about a quarter of shoppers may never even step back inside a brick-and-mortar store, some digital consumers are overstimulated and getting claustrophobic.

This is important for commercial bakers … and not just because “bread” is the third highest searched term on Instacart.

E-commerce is hitting foodservice distribution as well, and that’s a total disruption in the world of broadliners. distributes nationally out of one centralized location that uses “virtual inventory.” It gives foodservice providers a one-stop shop to browse not only what’s currently available, but also what a supplier is capable of producing

No matter how a bakery manufacture sells today, clicks and taps are just as important as the five senses.

In many ways, the digital and omnichannel landscape has become like the Wild West, with emerging and mature brands scrambling for the click and collect in any way they can get it. At the American Bakers Association’s annual convention, held March 27-30, a panel of e-commerce experts gathered to discuss smart strategies for closing the loop between the search and the purchase.

Omar Haque, VP/GM and head of eCommerce Acelerada for Bimbo Bakeries USA, joined Amanda Alexan, director of business development for Food Service Direct, a division of Unilever Food Solutions; Kasey Jamison, senior director of sales, large customer category, for Instacart; and Jonna Parker, principal for IRI’s Fresh Center of Excellence.

“There’s a misconception that the online shelf is endless,” Haque said. “It’s true that you can search for any category on Amazon, Walmart or Instacart and get thousands of results, but in reality, the digital shop is much smaller.”

The online barrier to entry is low, which is why the space is so crowded, but that doesn’t immediately hand an advantage to the incumbents, Haque cautioned.

“Brands have to talk to the consumer,” he said. “You have to have a language the consumer speaks and tell the story as to why they need to buy your product. Just because you own the shelf in-store doesn’t mean you automatically get the online display.”

The critical point is what Haque called “the zero moment of truth.” That’s the purchase conversion, but getting there requires more finesse than at brick-and-mortar.


“You have to have a language the consumer speaks and tell the story as to why they need to buy your product. Just because you own the shelf in-store doesn’t mean you automatically get the online display.” —Omar Haque | VP/GM and head of eCommerce Acelerada | Bimbo Bakeries USA


“You have to have best-in-class content — storytelling, images, descriptions and bullet points,” he said, noting that even if the purchase takes place in person, research is often happening digitally, so the online presence has to be stellar.

Jamison advised bakers to strategize toward taking the search to the next level.

“Over time, consumers will, instead of searching for ‘bread,’ search for your brand,” Jamison said. “That means getting your products in front of them more frequently and introducing you to more touch points, so the consumer is coming to the platform to search for your actual brand versus a generic search term.”

Regardless, the strategy has to start with leading the overall search results because the brand search starts with the first purchase.

“You’ve got to be front and center in that fight for the experience on Instacart so you’re owning — and defending — that purchase,” she added.

Consumers have grown accustomed to personalized experiences now more than ever, and that is especially prevalent online with social media and other apps creating targeted advertising.

“Online, you can really have products that resonate with very specific consumers, and given all the digital tools, make sure that person finds your product,” Parker said. “It’s much less of a risk to bring something to the marketplace that would have maybe withered at some other part of the store.”

The key, Jamison said, is showing up. That said, it’s only the first step. The next is the strategy behind it.

digital consumers panel

“You’ve got to invest in how you show up, and you have to make sure you’re reaching your shopper at all of her touch points,” she said. “You can’t skip any … because if you’re not there, someone else will be.”

Once a brand is in that space, conversion won’t happen without conversation, so it’s important to know the consumer and speak her language. That’s especially important in the digital space when tools like Instacart allow people to immediately comparison shop. And it makes strategy critical, and the more disruptive, the better.

“That’s really where digital is changing the game,” Parker said. “We have to compete differently. So, whether it’s ready meals and having retailers tout their amazing sandwiches with specific ingredients and breads or rolls as custom options, or even just the fact that there’s something totally unique available. We’ve never been able to see products like this; we had to go store-to-store to compare. And now they’re all right here on the shelf.”

Next up for Instacart is using platforms like Tik Tok to link recipes right to a consumer’s Instacart cart, so everything except the cooking is done in just a few clicks.

The digital shelf may be shrinking, but the market will never stop evolving, and it’s allowing brands to step off the shelf and meet customers and consumers where they are. It’s an opportunity for bakery manufacturers to concurrently inspire their customers and consumers to create, invent disrupt and try something new.

Online resources for distribution create new pathways for slower-moving SKUs through alternative foodservice channels like small caterers, educational institutions or bakery cafes who only need a few supplementary items.

“We can help foodservice operators solve the accessibility problem for those long-tail SKUs,” Alexan said.  “And we benefit the bakery manufacturer by solving the listing problem.”

Labor shortages and supply chain disruption are causing foodservice operators to reengineer their menus, leaving them to search for single items that can become multiple things.

“They want a croissant, but they can’t just sell it by itself,” Alexan said. “They also want to use it in a breakfast sandwich or a lunch sandwich. How many different occasions can they use this one item for?”

While the foodservice channel, which operates strictly B2B, is a little slower than retail in adopting digital platforms, the heart of the matter is the same. Bakery customers are charting new waters, and the want to be inspired by their suppliers to they can inspire their customers. Those bakeries who invest in showcasing their products and brands online will stand out in the crowd.

E-commerce, like all technology, is a constant evolution, and it’s changing how commercial baking companies do business.

“The next evolution will go from transactional to hyper-inspirational,” Jamison said. “We have such an opportunity that we haven’t even tapped into yet.”