Food & Drinks

Blue Apron moving beyond meals to selling experiences

NEW YORK — Much has changed in the food and beverage market since Blue Apron Holdings, Inc. was founded a decade ago. A pioneer in the meal kit delivery category, the company underwent an initial public offering (IPO) in 2017 that valued the business at $1.9 billion and then watched that valuation fall as it invested in scale, demand for delivered meal kits didn’t grow as rapidly as predicted and competitors began to eat away at its market share.

The COVID-19 pandemic offered a reprieve as demand accelerated with restaurants closed and consumers sheltering at home seeking variety, but now the company’s management team is trying to right-size the business while keeping pace with shifting consumer trends and advancing technologies.

The days of IPOs and billion-dollar valuations are gone.  In fiscal 2021, ended Dec. 31, 2021, Blue Apron recorded a loss of $88 million, which compared with a loss of $46 million in fiscal 2020.

Fiscal 2021 sales were $470 million, up from $460 million the year prior.

For the first six months of fiscal 2022, ended June 30, the losses have continued. In the first half of the fiscal year Blue Apron lost $61 million, which compared with a loss of $34 million the year before. During the same period company sales have fallen to $241 million from $253 million.

Today, it’s fair to ask what is Blue Apron? If the answer includes the word “subscription” you may need to refamiliarize yourself with the company. That was the old Blue Apron — The new Blue Apron is trying to break down barriers, reducing friction to growth and seeking to offer consumers more than a meal.

Linda Findley, president and chief executive officer, joined the company in 2019 after serving as chief operating officer of Etsy and has been working to set the company on a path to profitable growth. She describes the new Blue Apron as a food company powered by technology.

Linda Findley

“We’re using technology to create curated experiences that have a long-term great margin profile,” she said in an interview with Food Business News.

Speaking about Blue Apron’s past, Ms. Findley said the company needs to innovate.

“Blue Apron’s past didn’t address customer needs,” she said. “We weren’t thinking about the flexibility of today’s family. The focus needed to be on quality and the culinary experience. We’ve done that over the last few years, and we’re now focused on bringing them scale.”

New offerings introduced by Blue Apron demonstrate the commitment to experience and creating new opportunities and include ready-to-cook meals that require no chopping; heat-and-eat prepared single-serve meals; fast-and-easy meals; an “add on” menu of snacks or simple meals; and breakfast.

“When I joined and looked at the competitive landscape through our customer data — and we have a huge amount of data — we asked why customers are joining, staying and leaving, and what do they want to see more of?” Ms. Findley said. “We took that feedback and focused on meeting customer needs.

“We found consumers are focused on healthy options and now more than 50% of our meals are wellness recipes, and we’ve done this without losing quality. Convenience is also big and most of our meals take less than 30 minutes to prepare.”

New offerings sit squarely at the intersection of health and convenience, said Ms. Findley. Blue Apron also is offering more customization options, but management is mindful of the impact too much complexity can have on the business.

While the COVID-19 pandemic provided a boost to Blue Apron’s business, Ms. Findley was aware it wouldn’t last and chose to focus on product innovation at a time when other companies were more focused on supplying demand.

“We needed to come out of the pandemic more relevant to customers than before the pandemic,” she said.

The focus on innovation during the pandemic corresponded with the recognition that consumers would come out of it behaving differently.

“Prior to the pandemic cooking at home was growing, but the pandemic spiked everything,” Ms. Findley said. “Post pandemic it has settled, but it has settled at a higher level.

“A lot of that we are hearing is consumers have become more confident in the kitchen. They also found time with their family to be valuable; dinner together reconnected families and many are less likely to give it up.”

Adding to the opportunity has been the rise in people working remotely.

“The biggest convenience play is the mental overhang of meal planning,” Ms. Findley said. “What are we having for dinner? Where are all the ingredients coming from? It can be a stressful moment for families. With us, you can come home and have everything there.”

Streamlining infrastructure

While Blue Apron’s customer facing business features meal options and customization, behind the scenes the company is streamlining its infrastructure. A hangover from being a meal kit category pioneer was many of the early fulfillment systems put in place were custom made. As the company grew and added such platforms as Marketplace, its app and its wine service, each business was run from separate platforms. Today, those businesses have been migrated to a single fulfillment system.

“Cross selling is a big opportunity,” Ms. Findley said. “By comingling those platforms we can turn what were once multiple purchases into a single transaction.”

She also called the Blue Apron of today a “turnaround company.”

“The company went through a reset in 2017 and 2018 and part of what put us in our previous position is we over invested in supply chain in the early years,” she said. “That over investment meant rightsizing the footprint to two fulfillment centers down from six at one point. We need to use real estate effectively; we also need to have the automation in those facilities to scale the business.”

A decade in business has provided Blue Apron with a trove of consumer data. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are now being used to mine that data to engage consumers and identify trends.

“We have seen dietary preferences shift over time,” Ms. Findley said. “People aren’t moving away from beef, for example, but we have seen lower orders for beef and more for seafood.

“We’ve also seen shifts around health trends, with people leaning more plant forward and ordering more seafood than traditional meat products. We look at those trends and it informs what new products we might want to develop.”

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