May 4, 2012, 11:12 AM

How makers of Belgian chocolates beat the heat to successfully sell online

Retailers can learn lessons in packaging delicate items from chocolate ‘e-boutiques.’

Lead Photo

Belgian chocolatier Pierre Marcolini

Intense concern for the quality of his creations at first made master Belgian chocolatier Pierre Marcolini hesitant to sell his masterpieces online.

“Though the idea of online sales and offering my creations on the web was very seductive, it also seemed unfeasible,” says Marcolini, whose first bricks-and-mortar store opened in Brussels in 1995, and his web shop, or ‘e-boutique’ as he calls it, in 2010. (www.marcolini-eboutique.com)

“Nevertheless, I must admit, that I had long had an irresistible desire to pop a block of chocolate in the mailbox,” he says.

Italian-born and Belgium-raised Marcolini turned a childhood passion for cocoa into a profession, training as a pastry chef and chocolatier, and winning the World Champion Pastry competition in 1995.  

The biggest challenge to selling online, Marcolini says, was temperature control in the packaging so that goods wouldn’t get too hot or cold en route to their final destination. “We spent a year trying to come up with a tailored solution,” Marcolini says.

The result is packaging specially designed to keep content at temperatures between 8 and 18 degrees Celsius  (46.4-64.4 degrees Fahrenheit) for 48 hours, so the chocolate retains all its qualities—smell, taste and aesthetic.

“Our main objective is to keep the center of the box cold, and we do that with a special gel pack that keeps the package at 0 degrees Celsius /32 degrees Fahrenheit and avoids humidity during the shipping,” says Emmanuel de Hemptinne, e-commerce project manager at Pierre Marcolini.

De Hemptinne would not reveal how much the special packaging costs except to say that its price is included in delivery fees for online purchases.

The Marcolini e-boutique offers one day delivery for tablets (blocks of chocolate made from beans roasted in-house), and delivery in three to seven days for the ‘create your own box’ selections, which cost from  17 euros (US$22), with shipping starting at  9 euros (US$11). 

De Hemptinne says it is difficult to quantify the effect of the packaging innovation on e-commerce sales, but adds that he believes the steps the chocolatier has taken to ensure quality will pay off with customer loyalty and repeat business.

Belgian chocolate houses are experts in terms of the packaging and shipping efficiency they provide for such delicate goods purchased online, says Lee McCoy, managing director of web marketing agency Get Visible, which operates the web site www.chocolatereviews.co.uk. 

“Pierre Marcolini takes extra care with its chocolates and spends a great deal of money on the packaging as it is all temperature-controlled and tailor-made.”      

Other online chocolate shops in the region, which has long been known for its chocolate, say they take similar shipping precautions.  “We do everything possible to ensure the chocolates are delivered in the best possible conditions and do not suffer any damage during the trip,” says chocolateque.com, the online distributor for chocolatier, Frederic Blondeel. Chocolateque.com uses TNT International for worldwide deliveries.

 “In general, we avoid sending a parcel just before a weekend, so as not to prolong the journey time of the chocolates,” the company says. “If you are not at home when the delivery arrives, we will send the chocolates to your neighbors— if they will receive them— and of course you will be notified.” Shipping to the U.S. takes five working days, and costs $30 per order, the company says.

After establishing  five bricks-and-mortar stores in Belgium, and shops in Singapore and Tokyo, another master chocolatier, Jean-Philippe Darcier, launched his online shop— eboutique.darcis.com—in December. The e-commerce site sells macaroons, pralines and carrés (small chocolate squares).

Darcier previously launched another online shop—chocol-at.be—in 2010 with three friends. The web site sells quirky business gifts, such as Chocol@, a box of lettered pralines that look like a game of Scrabble and spell out a personalized message.

 “Together with Chocol@, we are offering a unique and original concept that combines exceptional quality with speedy delivery,” says Darcis.

DHL delivers the Chocol@ boxes, which are packed in an isothermal, coldpack airliner—via next-day delivery for orders placed by 1 p.m. for some destinations. The delivery service guarantees intact delivery throughout Europe “irrespective of the outside temperature”.

The packaging was designed by a temperature-control expert, and consists of insulating materials into which pre-frozen gel packs can be inserted to ensure a temperature below 15 degrees Clesius (59 degrees Fahrenheit) until delivery, the company says.

When reviewing orders, the customer service team checks local temperatures at the delivery address and decides whether the special packaging, which is free to consumers, is required.

Despite various delivery alternatives proposed by chocol-at.be—at 29 euros (US$38) for a box of chocolates and 19.99 (US$26) for shipping to France alone, such Belgium delicacies are a luxury by many consumers’ standards.

Nevertheless, Belgium’s renowned chocolate houses are harnessing e-commerce, to deliver the (sweet) goods.

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