Starting from zero: Camden Town Brewery's MD on their expansion into ecommerce

IWSR interviews Camden Town Brewery's MD, who shares his experiences in setting up an online shop, the challenges his team overcame and the impact of Covid-19


Despite being a well-known name in the world of beer, UK-based Camden Town Brewery is relatively new to direct-to-consumer ecommerce, having only launched its online shop at the end of last year. Managing director Adam Keary says his team wanted to make sure they could transfer the “great beer experience” they were used to offering in pubs to the online realm. “It took us a while to get to a good solution that we thought we could be proud of,” says Keary.

AB InBev, which acquired Camden in 2015, connected the brewery with logistics provider Beer Hawk (also owned by ABI) to help put the team’s plan into action. However, while Camden benefits from its parent company’s expertise and contacts, the brewery operates as an independent subsidiary.

And for Camden, the notion of hospitality needed to be central to its online shop. “We wanted to make sure that it was nice to shop on, simple and highly visual, and very painless in terms of transactions,” explains Keary. “[We used] as many autofills as we could find, [and made] the number of clicks from landing on the website to purchase as low as possible.”

It was also important to the brewer that consumers continued to receive a high-quality experience after their purchase was made, including in the confirmation email, delivery and packaging. Camden’s delivery boxes are custom designed with “nice simple touch points” that “bring the brand to life”, says Keary. For example, a note reads ‘You’ve got beer’ as opposed to ‘You’ve got mail’.

If you go into a great pub and they serve you really well, and the bartenders are really personable, we think, how can we take as much of that as we possibly can and put it into a delivery concept?

“It’s about making sure that the experience is fun and that people are getting an equitable service to when they go into a good restaurant or a good pub,” he adds. “We always have a hospitality hat on when we do anything. If you go into a great pub and they serve you really well, and the bartenders are really personable, we think, how can we take as much of that as we possibly can and put it into a delivery concept? That’s what we’re trying to do.”

The challenge of starting from zero

According to Keary, the biggest challenge Camden faced in setting up its own ecommerce operation was the fact that it lacked the qualified personnel and necessary structures to do so. “It was completely new to our organisation so we didn’t have an ecommerce specialist in our business,” says Keary. “Because we were starting from zero, we were fairly reluctant… [to] create a brand new team and then have them running a brand new website that wasn’t doing much turnover.”

As such, the brewery “polled internally” to find out who would be best placed to develop this new part of the business. “We started staffing it from a more temporary perspective of taking from other teams… then we very quickly worked with other experts who we were already working with in other ways,” Keary says, referring to Camden’s third party logistics provider and creative agency. By using the resources already available in its business and maximising its current partnerships, Camden was able to keep costs down and simplify its move online.

The brewer then decided that a relatively simple Shopify framework would serve its needs appropriately. “We didn’t necessarily think for a website that’s only going to be selling 20-30 products, that we needed to have more than that,” explains Keary. He adds that his team wanted to “make sure we had a website that worked really well rather than one that was really out there and doing a million different things at once”.

Opportunity for continual improvement

As many small and medium sized brewers look to increase their online presence during the pandemic lockdown, Keary notes that setting up a digital shop can be relatively fast, and brands shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes. “You can afford to make more mistakes online,” he says. “Rather than having to spend so much energy making it perfect – and we fell into this trap because we didn’t have the time pressures last year – I think you can send it live as long as the consumer can get their transaction securely and safely. You can keep on making it better and better every day, [and] keep putting iterations out there at a relatively low cost.”

Keary does, however, stress the importance of working with the right logistics firm. “Find a partner you can work with who can offer the expertise, so then you can focus on the brand experience, the product, and the consumer engagement. That’s absolutely been a key for us.”

He also notes that “smaller, more regionalised” brewers are particularly well placed to succeed in direct-to-consumer ecommerce since their products are not as ubiquitous as those of the big players, which dominate digital and physical supermarket shelves. He suggests that brands could also benefit by observing good practice in other categories. “We look at not just the beer industry, but the spirits industry, the soft drinks industry and wider ecommerce,” says Keary. “There are some amazing websites out there doing amazing things.”

Importance of ecommerce now ‘elevated’

Camden Town will now be looking to enhance its own online offering after witnessing a substantial sales spike in recent weeks amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. Keary says that while Camden’s platform had been registering solid growth since its launch, sales have shot up since social distancing measures were introduced and pubs across the country were forced to close. “If you look simplistically at April versus March 2020, I think we are 15 times bigger, which is probably 14 times more than what we would be otherwise,” says Keary. Camden’s website has seen both an increase in shopper traffic and also in the size of shopping baskets, with more people buying 12 and 24-can packs. In particular, the brewer’s core range has seen a “huge amount of growth” as consumers revert to their trusted favourites.

In order to deal with the sudden growth spike, Camden swiftly moved some of its resources around. Keary says, “in terms of the people managing the website, it’s come at a point where a lot of the parts of our business have slowed down a bit, so actually we can put a lot more dedicated resource on this, and it’s suddenly elevated it’s importance in the business.”

For Keary, the global reaction to the coronavirus pandemic has shown that “there’s the potential for a high demand” of beer online, despite the many other outlets from which products can be purchased. He also sees that social distancing has “sped up everyone’s confidence in buying online”, which could have long-term implications. “If we can do a great job now of delivering great service, those customers will come back and maintain a level of loyalty to us,” he says. “I think we’re going to have a high level of stickiness.”

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