JACKSON, MI — Dawn Foods, an ingredient supplier for retail bakers of all sizes, has invested in its technology in recent years, especially in the area of e-commerce and artificial intelligence (AI). In doing so, the company has created a sea of change for bakers in how they order ingredients and connect with Dawn.
The charge is led by Bob Howland, the chief digital officer, who joined Dawn in February 2019. With a background in profit and loss, and a track record of building or expanding the e-commerce capabilities of 27 companies across various industries.
When Howland joined Dawn, digital ways of working were not really part of how the 100-year-old company operated, and e-commerce was not something the company or the industry had really dabbled in before.
“Dawn really took a leadership role in filling my position,” he said. “It was with the ambition of launching e-commerce and setting the foundation for what was a transformational journey across technology. But I think in a larger way, this was a new way of doing business for Dawn, and much of what I did in launching, and now running, e-commerce has much less to do with technology and much more to do with change management.”
To get an understanding of the needs of Dawn’s customers, Howland headed out into the marketplace. By meeting with 30 bakers, he noted that bakers had a deep curiosity for their customers, other bakeries and learning new ways to work with baked goods. He also learned a lot of these bakers were already e-commerce savvy, using it to purchase supplies for their operations.
“My first 30 days gave me a lot of confidence for pulling in their feedback for what they were looking for from Dawn when it came to online ordering and our ability to deliver that for them,” he said.
Tuning in to customer needs
Howland and the Dawn tech team took that interest and developed the Voice of Customer program, which provided Dawn with customer feedback through a series of prompts in real-time, daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly. Through the qualitative and quantitative feedback received, Dawn has a steady view on its customers’ experience. This information helped pioneer an e-commerce experience other major suppliers in the baking industry had yet to break into.
“We listened to what customers wanted, we listened to our sales team, to our business and put out something which we thought was a really good first step with the intention to keep iterating and keep improving,” he said. “In fact, we spent more hours into the six months after we launched than the hours we spent to launch.”
To date, Dawn Foods receives regular feedback from customers and cultivates it into a roadmap, prioritizing new resources based on demand.
“We aspire to bring new features to market on a monthly basis, and our customer satisfaction score, which we measure every month, shows that close to nine out of 10 of our customers are likely to continue using our e-commerce platform,” he shared. “That’s just a great statistic that I’ve never really seen in my career. It was 90% out of the gate, and it’s about 90% today.”
One recent improvement is added transparency for customers. Howland shared that the team learned early on that customers want to know what’s in stock before hitting “check out” rather than viewing a product catalog and being uncertain about the availability.
“We learned very quickly that customers have a bad experience when they think they’re going to get something and it turns out that we don’t have it,” Howland said. “We’ve gone to a model where we only show product that is available in that local area for that specific customer. That’s a big win because customers now know when they order something, they truly can expect it.”
Bakers also want to know when they can expect ingredient orders to arrive. To add that visibility, Dawn is working with a third-party supplier that manages transportation and route systems.
All of this innovation is done to ease the path to the acquisition of ingredients for customers through transparency and access to updates from the convenience of their phones, granting piece of mind to busy bakers.
The e-commerce innovations from Howland’s team are also helping Dawn anticipate what its customers will need in the future. The ingredient supplier’s platform features the ability to see the full product catalog with images, search for products in the catalog and in previous customer orders, a direct way to shop from recipes featured on Dawn’s website and more.
“For most of the customers that do online ordering through us, it becomes their dominant way to deal with Dawn,” Howland explained. “And because most of our customers order every week or every other week, this gives us a lot of predictability operationally of what we’re going to have in the future in terms of orders and volumes.”
This is where AI comes in. Using customer data, Dawn’s AI is able to help the supplier plan better around demand as well as take note of ordering patterns to further power the company’s operations.
One way Dawn is using this AI is on its corporate website, where the digital team merged it with the same content management system it uses for e-commerce. In turn, this allows the more than 750 recipes available on Dawn’s website to be integrated into the shopping experience and also provides insights for the marketing team to understand customer interests.
“We’re moving from inspiring customers to really understanding customer intent to seeing customer purchases all in the span of a three-second interaction on the website,” Howland said.
Supporting the supply chain
Yet AI is more than a marketing tool for Dawn. That same data can also fuel future demand for Dawn’s products and support forecasting and reporting. And with most bakers’ orders remaining consistent week to week, it also opens the door for Dawn to pitch recommendations based on purchasing patterns. This includes showing which products a customer purchased to another customer that buys similar ingredients.
“We’re showing ‘Customers who bought this also bought that,’ but we’re not doing it from the standpoint of what Dawn wants to sell a customer,” Howland said. “We’re doing that based on customer purchase behavior, and we know the customer purchase behavior because we have an AI model behind that. AI is driving our recommendations engine that presents suggested products for the customer and that’s relatively unheard of in any industry.”
Rather than being “hard coded” by a marketing team and getting the same recommendations across the board to all customers, the AI program’s recommendations are very specific. The niche recommendations, tailored to customers’ purchasing habits have driven a conversion rate of over 10%.
“It really reinforces to us that the recommendations driven by the AI engine are truly impactful and equal to the customer,” he said.
Though it may seem daunting to bakery owners, AI can also empower them to break down their own data, helping to drive inventory level management, organize their customers’ preferences and more.
Howland and his team’s approach to technology innovation is centered on supporting customers and adding some ease to their operations.
“I do find that bakers are really, really curious and they are looking for easier ways to operate,” Howland said. “If we can help them with a small aspect that makes their relationship with Dawn easier or brings part of our partnership to them, we’ll do that every day and Sunday.”
A relationships case study
Dawn’s customer support is a hallmark of the company, and tech innovation is adding a new layer to that relationship.
Allen Tine, CEO of Yummies Donuts & BBQ in Venice, FL, has benefitted from the company’s technology investments.
The bakery, established in 1989 by Allen’s father, has been using Dawn Foods products since the beginning, before the supplier had a distribution hub in the area. Allen’s father covered great distances to bring Dawn ingredients to his Florida bakery, whether it be a 20-mile drive to Sarasota, FL, or catching a flight back to Michigan to retrieve what he needed.
“He was flying up to Michigan, buying a U-Haul truck full of mix — cake donut mix, yeast-raised mix — and then driving it back down here for him to operate,” Allen recalled. “Eventually, Dawn opened a distributorship down here where we could get product.”
Allen took over for his father in 2006 and has developed the shop into a full-scale bakery. The relationship with Dawn Foods was also passed down to Allen.
The tech advances made by the ingredients supplier have made a difference in Allen’s business. Though he had some hesitations about the software initially, Allen’s opinion has since changed.
“If I’m looking for something I can pop right on my order and scroll, and there’s always recipes on there for different items” he said. “They’ve come a long way, and it’s just phenomenal.”
The future is digital
From a competitive standpoint, Dawn is blazing a digital trail through its investments in e-commerce and AI. And it meets the needs of customers.
Looking to the future, Howland teased a payment integration feature is on its way to Dawn’s website in 2024, which will give customers the convenience of paying their invoices online.
“We are very much leveraging technology to really help the customer in ways that we don’t see in the rest of the industry,” he concluded, “and I think it’s going to help solidify Dawn for years to come from a leadership position, which I’m excited to be playing a small part in.”