One of Alabama’s most successful e-companies is also one of the most traditional makers. The company is 1818 Farms, a brand that has taken off spectacularly from a family farm in the historical community of Mooresville, south of Huntsville.
Amazon recently named 1818 Farms one of six finalists for the top honor in its 2019 U.S. Small Business Spotlight Awards. They sell a line of handmade bath and body products that is carried by hundreds of retail stores, with at least one store in almost every state in the country.
“In the beginning (2012), it was more of a family project, to teach the kids about building a business and sustainability and to get them outdoors,” says Natasha McCrary, co-owner with her husband, Laurence.
The growth has been relentless — from a cottage industry into a 365-day-a-year operation — and driven, says McCrary, by the starting assumptions. “Our strategy from the start has been to have the highest quality for an affordable price. To do that you have to produce in volume, you have to hit scale. We want it at a price that a schoolteacher can afford as a gift. A lunch these days will cost $12 to $15. We sell a jar of cream for $10.”
Although all of the products are hand made, the ingredients are not home grown and not made on the farm. “Our corporate office is in Huntsville. That’s where we hand make the products. All the products are made in Huntsville because we need a warehouse with loading docks.”
The internet side of the business grew alongside the network of retail outlets that their products are in and is a vital core of the business. To build sales to her retailers she goes to large markets in Atlanta and Nashville.
“Fifty percent of sales are wholesale, going to retail outlets. The other half is online, whether directly or through Amazon. We go to the Atlanta market and we want to sell through our retail partners, but also we don’t have products in every store in the U.S.”
With online sales there is the threat of immersion in an ocean of potential competitors, acknowledges McCrary, but she says she’s found ways to distinguish her brand.
“Our products are available on a very curated section of Amazon, Amazon Handmade,” a certification that draws the right customers, she says. And internet sales bring with them a chance for market study.
“We do a lot of analysis, constant analytics: who comes to the site, how long they stay and what states they live in. We know that our typical customer is a female, 35-50 and loves animals and gardening and skin care.”
“If you don’t have a farm, you can live the farm life with us. Feeding, hoof trimming, pumpkins, cover crops. Last night, it was gathering eggs. People forget that eggs can be pale blue and pink.”
It’s all about building a relationship with the customer that is unique, can’t be easily poached by a competitor, even if it’s an Amazon competitor, says McCrary. “Relationships, I tell the people who work for us, a relationship is the most important thing you can have with a customer in general.”
And the same goes for suppliers and retail outlets, which keeps Natasha and Laurence on the road a lot.
Key to keeping retailers as part of the chain of customer relationships are the wholesale markets, such as AmericasMart Atlanta. 1818 Farms is a part of a collaborative showroom called The American Made Collective. “We go to Atlanta twice a year. It’s a permanent showroom. We can go and talk with the retail outlets about each product, what works best in their stores. They have a lot to offer us in a relationship with the people who carry our products. They’re almost representatives of the farm.
“We encourage our customers to go to the retailer, because we have great relationships with an account and tell them the story of the farm, so that they can really talk about the product. This is a tactile sell. If they have their staff trained, they can tell a customer the benefits of a product. With the internet, you miss the personal touch. Our product is so much of an experience sell — the feel of the milk bath, the application of the cream. You can’t type it.”
A “tactile sell” is one that requires the salesman to really know the benefits of a product inside out — a term you learn in business school. Before her picture book family farm incarnation, McCrary was a business major at the University of Alabama, then worked for a computer programing company in Atlanta.
Laurence works full time in the business, though at different chores. “He helps with the farm and the animals and tours. But he has an MBA in finance and does all of our financials and our website and website maintenance. He’s a numbers guy, a number cruncher. We complement each other.”
The farm component of the business holds its own on the bottom line — egg sales just cover feed for all the farm animals — but its biggest contribution is in brand building, starting with a rare breed of sheep, Southdown Babydoll, that populates the farm. They come with a look that’s pretty much a brand in itself.
“The animals are our cover guys,” says McCrary. “We have products that are linked to individual animals, such as Clover’s Lip Smack. Lamb Soft Skin is represented by Sweet Pea.”
Agritourism was the first enterprise on 1818 Farms, and it continues to pay marketing dividends.
“We’ve begun offering farm experiences” on the company website, says McCrary. “Not everybody can do that. It’s the right way to do things, authenticity. We tell them we want them to leave the farm learning five things that they didn’t know before they arrived. It makes them feel like they are a part of the farm. It’s something unique we offer.
“We also try and do a lot of public days that are free, such as a big sheep shearing event in March. Private tours for school children, master gardeners and retired groups are something we offer. It stops in September when we gather all the flowers and plant a cover crop.”
Flowers have also become a big contributor to the brand, including a vintage baby blue pickup truck that serves as a movable flower market. It makes seasonal wholesale deliveries and makes regular retail appearances at Birmingham’s Magic City Flower Market.
“Flowers are a small part of the business revenue but a big part of the brand and a growing part. Next year will be the third year that our farm will be growing 100 percent flowers. And we’re planning on drying the flowers and getting into seed sales.”
Back at the production and distribution facilities in Huntsville, the business plan is more like Henry Ford logistics than Babydoll branding.
“We go small to hit scale,” says McCrary. “Every employee becomes a specialist in a particular product and becomes faster. Someone who is best at lip balm can produce 1,200 units a day, compared to 300. You do a lot of training and specialization.
“We have around 10 employees, three of them full time. Many of them are moms with children in school and most work part time, 20 hours a week. One works 5-6 hours and has one thing that she does, and that’s what she does.”