In today’s digital age, retailers across Genesee County are achieving unprecedented growth by harnessing the power of e-commerce.

From quaint bakeries to coffee roasters, the online marketplace is providing a level playing field, allowing entrepreneurial dreams to blossom into success stories.

“I think it’s a matter of really thinking outside the brick-and-mortar box and pursuing new strategies,” said Rebecca Nagy, founder of Cinnamom, which sells 350,000 cinnamon rolls annually out of her Grand Blanc Township bakery.

The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on e-commerce, accelerating trends and reshaping the way people shop and do business.

Collage of products sold online: Left is a plate of three iced cinnamon rolls, Middle is an orange package of coffee called Boo with a Skeleton on the label; Right is a yellow bowl filled with honey apple pecan dip and a bowl of apples

With lockdowns and restrictions in place, consumers turned to online shopping in record numbers. In the second quarter of 2020, online sales nationwide experienced a 44.5% increase in year-over-year sales compared to the overall retail sector, which experienced a 3.5% decline, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

That change in consumer behavior isn’t going away anytime soon, experts predict.

And that’s perfectly fine with Nagy, whose dream a decade ago was to sell her cinnamon rolls online.

Now 65, Nagy grew up helping her mother make the family’s favorite cinnamon roll recipe. For years, friends encouraged Nagy to start a cinnamon roll business because hers were so delicious. So, after retiring from her nursing career at the age of 55, she finally listened and in 2013 opened her first Cinnamom location — along with a website.

That website quickly got the attention of QVC, the televised home shopping channel that broadcasts to 350 million households in seven countries.

“QVC is always on the lookout for unique items and contacted us not long after we opened, asking to feature our cinnamon rolls on their show,” Nagy said. “We felt we were too small at that time to do it. But they approached us again when we’d moved to a bigger building with the ability to ship out a lot of cinnamon rolls at one time. We’ve been with QVC ever since.”

A tray of cinnamon rolls decorated with different icing including cinnamon, buttercream and pecan.

Without a doubt, these are the ooiest, gooiest, best cinnamon rolls you’ll ever taste – and we ship them right to your front door. Rebecca Nagy of Cinnamom

Since then, the business has grown in size and popularity, both locally and nationally. Last year, Cinnamom moved to a bigger location in Grand Blanc Township, doubling the size of its main bakery to meet the burgeoning demand for her 3/4-pound gourmet cinnamon rolls in more than 50 varieties.
“Without a doubt, these are the ooiest, gooiest, best cinnamon rolls you’ll ever taste — and we ship them right to your front door,” she said.In addition to QVC, Cinnamom’s wholesale customer list includes DashMart in the DoorDash app, CloudRetail, ePallet, Amazon, and Walmart. Online orders account for 75% of sales.

“Every day there are new online opportunities that I’m pursuing,” she said.

Like so many retailers, the pandemic forced businesses to change their way of thinking or perish. People who had never shopped online before began to do so out of necessity, and many continue doing so today.

It’s been a game-changer for businesses of all shapes and sizes.

E-commerce enables small businesses to reach a much larger audience than they can with just a physical storefront. But effective e-commerce strategies are crucial for success in the online marketplace.

Unlike many traditional businesses that start out with a physical storefront and eventually branch into wholesale and online sales, Flint entrepreneur Sean Murray flipped that model on its head.

“With everything going on with COVID, with how scary it was for everyone, I knew that everything was going to change, and that the world was going to shift in a very big way,” Murray said. “So, I started Rootless Coffee smack-dab in the middle of COVID using only e-commerce.”

Rootless roasts what Murray calls craft coffee, a new wave of coffee roasting and serving using specialty grade, ethically sourced green coffee.

“There are thousands of other coffee companies, but we focus on roasting incredible craft coffee, while making it approachable,” he said. “We consider ourselves the subculture gateway to craft coffee.”

Four packages of various flavors of Rootless coffee.

Nobody’s going to taste my coffee who lives in Texas, for instance, if I don’t sell the a bag and ship it to them. E-commerce is the way to reach them. Sean Murray of Rootless Coffee

Murray started Rootless in a downtown photography studio whose supportive owner allowed them to use the conference room to roast coffee. They opened an online store on Shopify and started selling their coffee using clever social media posts to attract viewers.

It worked.

Starting with only a couple wholesale accounts, Rootless quickly outgrew its conference room headquarters and moved to Flint’s Carriage Town, where it still roasts, packages, and ships its coffee today.

“We really started refining our systems and growing as a brand,” said Murray, who moved to Flint in 2017. “We’ve grown a lot on e-commerce, have a lot of wholesale accounts now, and we’re at 35 grocery stores — including Meijer.”

Rather than open its own storefront, Rootless partnered in May with Penny’s Café at the Flint Farmers’ Market.

Murray and his team are working to make coffee entertaining and fun. The brand uses unique imagery and out-of-the-box advertising to sell its products.

“We want people to love the taste of our coffee and to say, ‘Hey, this is a really cool company,’” he said.
Rootless has blossomed over the last three years with most revenue coming from wholesale and grocery sales. Murray’s goal is for Rootless to become a national name.

And e-commerce is his ticket.

“Nobody’s going to taste my coffee who lives in Texas, for instance, if I don’t sell them a bag and ship it to them,” he said. “E-commerce is the way to reach them.”

Stephanie Jones couldn’t agree more.

Country Home Creations got its start 44 years ago in Goodrich when her mother, Shirley Kautman-Jones, started selling little bags of spices and easy-to-follow recipes at a church bazaar. She priced the packets for 75 cents each and, to her astonishment, sold all 100 bags in a matter of minutes.

“My mom knew she was on to something: People were craving delicious dishes without a lot of hassle,” said Jones, the company’s vice president.

Today, Country Home Creations sells two million packets annually.

Still based in Goodrich, they offer over 100 different mixes in clear plastic pouches that are sold wholesale to thousands of vendors, including specialty food stores and markets across the world.
“We also do a significant private label business for some large accounts and people don’t realize that it’s our product,” she said.

Selection of Country Home Creations' mixes including a bundt cake made from a pumpkin mix; a plate of bread and Pesto Parm bread dip and a tray of crackers and meats with a  bowl of zesty bread dipping sauce

We also do a significant private label business for some large accounts and people don’t realize that it’s our product. Stephanie Jones of Country Home Creations

Half their business comes through their wholesale website, with the rest done in person at trade shows, over the phone, or through sales reps, Jones said.

“It’s interesting; you can never replace the interaction with a human when it comes to business-to-business (B2B) sales,” she said. “You also can’t duplicate our quality. We use high-quality ingredients versus just powders and fillers.”

During COVID, Country Home also saw more people ordering online. One way they maximized that trend was joining an online B2B platform called Faire that’s designed as a virtual trade show.

“So instead of a gift shop traveling to a trade show, they go online to Faire and order exactly what they need,” she said.

The platform proved so successful that Country Home Creations is now a Faire Top Shop, which recognizes the best brands and sellers on the platform.

“We are in the top 5% among all the thousands of vendors selling their goods on there,” Jones said.
They do their own photography and offer plenty of great recipes. Between the website, sales platforms, email marketing, blogs, SEO, and Google ad words — not to mention new recipes, customer service, packaging, and shipping — the work never ends.

“There’s been a lot of trial and error many, many times over the years,” Jones said. “But when people sit down to a meal that tastes great and was so simple to prepare, it’s all worth it.”

For other small businesses interested in new growth opportunities, Cinnamom’s Rebecca Nagy strongly encourages them to consider branching out into online sales.

Companies are constantly fine-tuning ways to reach the millions of customers ordering online who want their food or products delivered to their door within 30 minutes, she said. Cinnamom will soon be available at 16 CloudRetail locations in Los Angeles and San Francisco, with more locations on the way.

“There’s so much opportunity out there if business owners just look for it,” Nagy said. “Of course, do your homework, do your market research, ask lots of questions. But this is most certainly the wave of the future.”