A How-to on Building Your Seafood Business Online

If you’re a waterman in the 21st century, it only makes sense to grow your seafood business online. Not sure how to get started? Follow this step-by-step guide.


Define Your Selling Strategy

If you’re used to selling traditional retail, examine your selling strategy to determine the level of investment you’ll need to make for e-commerce. Online selling requires shipping contracts, order platforms, payment processing and special packaging. If you didn’t have a website before, you’ll naturally need one to sell online. It’s best to smart small and grow. You’ll want to target your marketing efforts, so your profit margins are where you want them to be.


What Does Ordering/Pickup Look Like?

  • If you’re selling regionally, you could also offer same day pickup in addition to using UPS or FedEx for delivery. You’ll still need a basic selling platform and a way to pay online.
    • If you’re selling regionally, you might consider using company operated trucks that take your seafood to either the customer’s door or a central pickup location.
    • If you’re wanting to sell nationally, that will require a large investment, a dedicated support team and higher overhead. You can either rely on UPS and FedEx or delivery via company trucks.


Wholesale vs. Retail Cost

  • Wholesale requires lower overhead and investment. At the same time, you won’t need special packaging or a selling website.
  • Retail has higher overhead and investment as you will need special packaging, a selling website, payment processing fees, website fees and continuous customer service.


Calculate Costs to Ensure You Can Make a Profit

  • Wholesale costs include fuel, maintenance, licenses and equipment
  • Retail/E-commerce costs include managing and creating a website as a selling platform, packaging, payment processing fees, advertising fees, a dedicated staff and delivery/shipping costs.


Set & Measure Profit Margin on Everything

  • Remember operating cost + overhead cost = 0% profit.
  • Retail seafood markup is typically between 30-50%
  • Premium and rare products demand higher margins
  • Markup should be lower if selling locally — correlates to lower cost of doing business
  • Markup should be higher if selling nationally — correlates to higher cost of doing business
  • Benchmark against your competition
  • Don’t overlook fees to cover additional costs
    • Use handling fees
    • Waive fees for local pickup
    • Customize handling fees based on service. For example, shipping with cooler and gel packs could be $10 with additional dry ice $3. Local pickup with cooler and ice: $5.
    • Use flat shipping fees and set minimums on orders.
    • Offer additional services to increase profit. Those might include crab steaming, fish cleaning, shuck, debearding, extra sauces, express fees, etc.


The Best Selling Platforms


Managing Orders

  • Allow time for fulfillment
    • Always communicate with customers. Ex: “Orders will be ready for pickup in two hours.” Use “select pickup time” app
    • Maintain an order cutoff time
    • Communicate last time of day orders accepted for same day fulfillment
    • Communicate with customers! “Orders received by 1 pm will be ready same day/next day, etc.” For local pickups: “Your order is ready for pickup.”


Managing Inventory

  • Do not oversell and cancel orders!
    • Use spreadsheets to track orders.
    • FIFO: First in, first out. Sell oldest inventory first
    • Hedge inventory. List 80% inventory and add as you go
  • Retail and online inventory
    • Dedicate inventory for retail/walk-in purchase if applicable
    • Rule=weekend=high demand
    • Mark products as “sold out” vs removing them from website


Shipping and Delivery

  • Look for best rates
    • Use discounted rates and apps approved by selling platform
    • Leverage found 1-day and 2-day
    • Use your trucks for local and regional delivery
      • Charge a delivery fee
      • Leverage existing refrigerator trucks
      • Offer local same day delivery
      • Offer regional next day delivery and combine with wholesale deliveries


Packaging Matters!

  • Local example: York Box and Barrel in Poquoson
  • National example: www.victorypackaging.com/en/product-type
  • Go recyclable. Ex. Greencellfoam.com
  • Use heavy corrugate for cold products
  • Dry ice will freeze your product, crack plastic, snap metals and shatter glass. As it emits C02, do not seal! Over 5.5lbs is HAZMAT regulated


Getting Customers

  • Put out a sign!
    • “Now taking online orders” in retail locations. Advertise by the register, side of road, back of the front door
    • Include leaflets with carryout order
    • Include web address on all information
  • Website presence
    • “Now taking online orders” banner on home page and header on other pages
    • Link to order form or shopping
    • Email all your customers
    • Add order/shopping to pages header
    • Search Engine Optimization (SEO): Get free SEO wizards on selling platforms/websites & free Google support  at http://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/6259634?hl=en
  • Paid advertising aka ad spend — set a small budget ad tweak and expand slowly. Measure ROI.
  • Email marketing
    • Collect email addresses with online orders
    • Email around holidays and special events
    • Notify customers of seasonal specials
  • Marketplaces and dropship
    • Sell your products on another website and you fulfill order
  • Be patient! Selling successfully takes time, often 6 months or more
  • Word-of-mouth is GOLD!


Pro Tips

  • Pictures and stories
    • Product pictures are a must as customers like to see what they’re buying. Always include descriptions.
    • Connect with your customers! Include pictures of you, facilities, boats, story, history
    • Recipes, tutorials boost sales
  • Shipping
    • Confirm carrier pickup day and times
    • Understand dim/weight breaks
    • While 1- and 2-day ground is cheap, it’s not guaranteed
    • Some carriers offer COVID discounts; revisit contracts
    • Always offer overnight shipping even if expensive
  • Getting found online
    • Update location accuracy and hours on Google
    • Add map to site
  • Stay focused
    • Start small and grow with intent
    • Refine offerings, presentation, pricing         
    • Listen to customers
    • Evaluate cost/profit models, including shipping for new products


Selling online is not complicated. You can be up and running in three days or fewer. Free solutions are available. Understand your costs. Define your selling strategy and invest accordingly. Use your existing capital, technology and services. Make sure you tell everyone you know you are selling online. Advertise with signs, banners, leaflets, emails!