August 16, 2011, 10:25 AM

General Mills bakes up a new e-commerce strategy

The big food brand tests new shopping sites for Betty Crocker and gluten-free products.

Lead Photo

Consumers can find gluten-free products at GlutenFreely.com.

What do the Betty Crocker Red Spoon Squad and Gluten Freely have in common? They’re the newest examples of how consumer packaged goods manufacturer General Mills Inc. is reaching out to consumers through e-commerce.

With RedSpoonSquad.com, the company has begun to test a site where shoppers can learn about new recipes, get online instructions suited to their personal level of cooking experience, and arrange for a personal visit from a Red Spoon Squad expert. Computer tablet in hand, Red Spoon Squad members will arrive armed with cooking tips and a mobile app that will display recipes, show cooking demonstration videos and process online purchases of suitable Betty Crocker products, says David Wolfe, managing director of BrandJourney Venturing, the web technology development firm that is building and temporarily operating the new sites for General Mills. Red Spoon Squad experts have started serving consumers in test markets including Virginia Beach, VA, he adds.

BrandJourney Venturing specializes in building and operating new types of e-commerce ventures with Internet or “cloud-based” technology from Microsoft Corp., Wolfe says. It strives to make its new ventures revenue-producing businesses within 12 months before handing over the new ventures for their clients to operate, he says.

BrandJourney employs the Microsoft Azure technology platform, which accesses a suite of web-based Microsoft software. That means the e-commerce software runs on Internet servers outside of a retailer or brand client’s own infrastructure.

BrandJourney has also developed GlutenFreely.com, which launched in March after a six-month development period, Wolfe says. Consumers can shop the site for 400 General Mills products, including breads, cakes, pasta, pizza and other foods, that are free of gluten—a protein naturally found in grains that helps dough rise and gives certain foods a chewy texture.

But gluten also is known to cause celiac disease, with symptoms including digestive problems and fatigue in some people—about 1 in 133, according to an estimate General Mills uses. Yet gluten-free products are not always easy to find, a void the company is seeking to correct through its new e-commerce site.

“We realized that people with celiac disease, and others who have some kind of gluten sensitivity or who just want to live a gluten-free lifestyle, were having particular difficulty in simply locating all of the great foods that they need to make this diet come to life for them,” says Dom Alcocer, marketing manager of new ventures for General Mills. “They couldn’t find places to buy the products, and they had to spend a lot of time sifting and sorting through the Internet to find recipes and other information about gluten-free diets.”

Alcocer says General Mills chose to work with BrandJourney and the Microsoft Azure technology to avoid the costs associated with building and maintaining sites on the manufacturer’s own web site infrastructure. “We needed to build an e-commerce solution without incurring the costs and maintenance of a traditional on-premises platform,” he says. “Gluten Freely was brought to market about twice as fast and at about half the cost of what we were expecting from a traditional I.T. development.”

General Mills isn’t commenting on the level of traffic and sales the new site has produced, but it notes that it has already built a strong following through Facebook and Twitter, including more than 90,000 fans on Facebook. “In our first day, we had orders from more than 25 states, and we now deliver to every state in the continental United States,” he says.

General Mills operates other e-commerce sites on its own Microsoft technology platform, including BettyCrocker.com and CascadianFarms.com. Although it hasn’t announced plans to integrate these and other sites with its new BrandJourney sites, using Microsoft technology across all of its sites would make it easier to tie together multiple sites if General Mills ever chose to go that route, Wolfe says.

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