From the coast of Maine to kitchens all across America, Mark Murrell and the Get Maine Lobster team have been shipping fresh lobsters and seafood for over a decade. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Mark shares his methods for shipping live seafood, managing exponential growth through logistical hurdles, and using content to build relationships with customers.
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Building trust to help customers confidently purchase seafood online
Shuang: How did the idea of selling lobsters online come to be?
Mark: I was not living in Maine at the time, I grew up here, but I was actually living in Chicago. And I was going to my favorite seafood market in Bath, Maine, and my friend owned it. And at the time, I was a marketing consultant with a focus on eCommerce and mobile. He told me he wanted to sell lobster online, I wanted to make sure that was a good idea for him. I did a little bit of diligence, some research and discovered that it was a great idea. There was plenty of demand, people searching for lobster. And at the time back in 2009, there was not a lot of competition, it was really just two or three that were doing a really good job than a bunch of smaller instances that simply existed and probably didn’t do much volume. I did share with him that running an online retail business is much different than your fish market, and gave him the list of things he would want to consider.
And because you have a great location, people stop in and buy fish and lobster. That’s not the case when it comes to the internet. And you need to try to sell them something that our Average Order Value (AOV) is $190. I got to convince a stranger without seeing my face to spend $190. So a lot goes into that. And so he was too scared to move forward. And right then in there, I said, “Well, I’m going to do it, and you can fulfill my orders.” And that’s how it came to be. I had acquired a bunch of domains while I was doing research, thinking that this is a great opportunity, and yeah. So late 2009, we launched.
Shuang: So to your point, it is tough to convince a stranger to give you over $100 and expect a live lobster. So for that initial year, how did you start to build that social proof and trust, so people would believe that a live lobster is going to come to their door?
Mark: The most important thing I told myself is that I don’t know anything about what the customer wants with this particular service and product. Living in Chicago, I had some friends at Groupon and said, “Hey, I got lobster and I can deliver it to any doorstep in the USA. You want to do something?” So we were the first lobster company on Groupon. And that was my testing because this was bootstrapped. I didn’t go out and get investors, I just put my own money in. And I let Groupon do all the heavy lifting, and then I chose to listen to what the customer wanted. I designed a couple of packs because I’ve had lobster dinners before. And I have a degree in creative writing, so I’m pretty good at telling a story. So I just put the two together, partnered with people at Groupon and Guilt for the first few years, and really just listened and iterated and fixed problems as they came up and tried to be proactive and communicate because receiving lobster at your house is daunting.
Shuang: How did you go about figuring out the shipping part?
Mark: Shipping has been happening for quite a while. Let me back up a little bit. The number one thing is no lobster is equal. So you can come to Maine and you can get what’s called a soft shell lobster not for a good price today because prices are high. But typically in the summer, you could buy a lobster off the wharf walking up for like, say five, six dollars. Right? But that lobster is not strong enough to make it to Los Angeles. So we buy a Primo lobster, which has a harder shell, stronger and Spry. Right? So soft shell lobsters are very, very weak. And once you take them out of the water, they’re probably going to die within 18 hours. So the first thing is selection. You select the strongest of the catch. Next is, they engineered a box that is slotted.
Mark: So you put the lobster tail down, claws up, and that keeps them from moving around and getting shook. Because you’re handing the box over to FedEx or UPS, you have no idea what they’re going to do to the box. Prior to going in the box, we reduce their core body temperature. So we put them in a lobster tank that’s even colder than the main ocean. This gets them in a docile, dormant, almost hibernation state. And then we pack them with gel packs, and a moisture pad so they can have a little bit of seawater on the journey. But most importantly, a strong lobster is very resilient and has been known to live outside of the ocean for anywhere from two to three days.
Shuang: Did you do some test runs and how long did it take for you to feel confident to ship out these lobsters?
Mark: Luckily for me, I’ve always been partnered with somebody that’s done that before. So the fish market, the only reason he wanted to get into the online game, was because people were calling him and he was putting a lobster in a box and shipping it with success. So he knew that if I wanted the lobster to survive, I got to pick the most spry, the most primo. So he had that experience already. And then we grew out of his location, right? The next location had experience as well. Now we do it ourselves, we have our own facility. And it’s like nothing. It’s like putting a sandwich into a plastic bag for lunch. It’s very easy for us.
Managing customer relationships—and telling the stories that matter
Shuang: So you gain this initial group of customers with partnerships with Groupon, how do you then transfer them over to your own site and turn them into returning customers?
Mark: We started with email. So we had a CRM, and we started emailing them directly saying, “Hey, we caught too much lobster, and we need to ship you some, here’s a good deal.” That was our first stage. And then platform, platform, platform, then we started doing Facebook and Google in the beginning, not a lot of success, really high marketing costs, not a huge return. So then we just got better at it. And then finally, we went to Shopify Plus, which had all the bells and whistles that would not only help us be attractive but also convert and increase cart rate. From the beginning to today is like, night and day as it relates to the platform as a whole.
Shuang: For those initial iterations of spending social ads on Facebook or optimizing research with Google, what did you tweak to understand and get better performance throughout the years?
Mark: It’s the audience and the creative. So obviously, the headline and the hook have to be great. There’s got to be some kind of offer unless you’re a well-established brand, but creative in the audience. So we’ve really focused heavily on the audience. So our first really successful audience was displaced New Englanders. So we looked at people who had either been raised back east or spent college back east, and now we’re living far away on the West Coast or in the Midwest, far enough away so that lobster was readily available. And then we just really worked hard in our creative, started investing in video, which really helped a lot. We worked really hard on getting them to opt into our lists, because we knew that our product type might not be one of those impulse buys, right? This is a well-thought-out, “Hey, I’m going to feed four for $180.” I can’t make this decision right now. So if we capture their email, then we can nurture them along, we can tell them, “Hey, this is who we are, we’ve served X amount of people, here’s what Susan said from North Dakota, she loves us.” Really focused on getting a lot of customer-generated content so that we could share that with people. Facebook was a great tool, because we had high ratings, and we bent over backward for our customers. And the word of mouth really helped out a lot. But also, we would have really great reviews.
Shuang: What was that process like adding in additional product offerings?
Mark: It started with our second move. And where we were having our orders fulfilled from a location that was doing value add products. So one of the first things we added was lobster tails, lobster bisque, chowder, crab cakes, and those really took off. And then we started working with a commissary saying we want to build our own products, we got a couple of people that are really good, chefs that have great recipes, let’s make our own mac and cheese and it’ll be awesome. And then lobster rolls really started to take off. So it just kind of happened naturally. People will ask for it and we will bring something to them. For example, we have a Cajun shrimp bowl, which is my mom’s recipe. And I just converted that into a ready-to-eat meal, and it’s amazing. But yeah, it’s just listening and observing what’s trending in the market, and then trying to make it so that everything has to be unforgettable once it hits the mouth. So if it passes that test, then it makes it right. And we’ve made mistakes where some products didn’t hit the mark, and then we pull them.
Shuang: How many customers are getting the live lobsters and how much of the proportion are actually just getting the ready-made meals?
Mark: So the biggest thing is lobster rolls and lobster tails. Only about 25% is live lobster. And of that 25%, 75% arrives on a Friday, which is interesting. But lobster tails and lobster rolls by far, highest velocity skew in our store.
How Get Maine Lobster fine-tunes the online shopping experience
Shuang: What are some of the exercises that you do regularly to make sure that when someone lands on your website that it is a really good shopping experience?
Mark: So first, really the story of seafood coming from Maine, delivered to your doorstep and we promise it will be unforgettable. And from a mechanic’s standpoint, you want super easy no friction checkout experience. And we’re constantly tweaking on that so that we get better and better and better and faster and faster and faster. We leverage bold apps to do upsells. And we’re very thoughtful with the add ons that we offer people. And then we’re looking into Rebuy as an app and hearing really good things about it that seems to have a little bit more functionality. So we’re actually likely going to move to Rebuy from Bold Upsell. But really, it’s constantly monthly tests on site speed, checkout experience, little things like Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) that we’re constantly looking at. So along the way, we’ve added some of those elements that make people feel good, like how many people we’ve served, testimonials are key, things like that. And really, we drive traffic to those collections that get the highest conversion rate. It’s rare, we send somebody to the homepage. But obviously, if through search, somebody might land on the homepage.
Shuang: Soyou’re sending people to product pages that probably align more towards whatever they’ve searched or browsed previously?
Mark: Absolutely. Or will tell a story through video or a photo of, hey, here’s a special promotion that a bunch of people loves and order every day, we think you will too. And go here and see that. So that page needs to be optimized. And we’ve added to that landing page, so that people see what the experience is like, how we pack it, what people are saying about it, what’s exactly in it, ship everything overnight, so on and so forth.
Shuang: How do you reconcile this balance when you’re looking at your budget to invest in social spend versus content and video?
Mark: Well, there’s a shift now, right? So since the iOS 14 update, content is more and more important. So, telling the story in a very short period of time is an art. And then what you’re showing is science. But we know that when people look at something, we can track those actions, and then iterate it to get the optimal action that we’re looking to get. Right? So a video that’s 15 seconds could start with Suzy from North Dakota opening a box and then cooking it and then feeding it to her family. And then we have an AV test of a video where Suzie’s just eating with her family and then smiling in the background while she’s cleaning a dish.
And we discover that, oh, video number two actually outperformed video number one by 50%. So, we’re going to do that one. And we did video number one, because we thought they really needed to see the unboxing experience. Some audiences really want to see that. Let’s say the younger crowd really wants to see that. But our demos are typically 55 plus, so they’re like, “Hey, I’ve gotten stuff in a box before and I just want to know the net experience because I’m having family over and I want to do something awesome.”
Growing the business 600% amid shipping hurdles
Shuang: I do wonder what your thought process was during COVID? Your model is very COVID proof in a way because people are not going to grocery stores. But on the flip side of it is, now everybody’s just worried about the necessities and they might not think about celebratory meals.
Mark: So, fun story, I have a financial advisor that acts like our CFO. And we have a meeting every other week, and she says, “Hey, we have to have the talk. We might have to trim some fat.” And I was like, “We should definitely go through that process, but I have a feeling, we’re not going to have to do anything.” And I’d run some experiments because I thought that box velocity was creeping up a little higher than normal for March, so I ran a couple of experiments and I was right. And I said, “Let’s go through this process, however, I think we’re gonna have the opposite effect.” And so once those experiments prove true, then I told our agency, I go, “There’s no limit to what you can spend, as long as the Cost of Acquisition (CAC) isn’t here or less. Do whatever you want.” And then it just exploded.
Shuang: I think that echoes a little bit of you having this idea and going through with it as well. You’re really betting on yourself, and also believing in this model.
Mark: All those are very true points. And one of the things that I would say to the team, because April was probably the most difficult month for us, even though December was busier. Because we had limited people because of COVID restrictions. But we did. April, typically one of our slowest months, and I think we quadrupled what we normally do in December. So it was wild. But I just would tell everybody and myself, things work out for us, there’s the magic behind us, so let’s just… It just always works out and it always has. It really just always has. So I think we’re either blessed, or we have a guardian angel or I got some magic in the back pocket, or something, but I got an amazing team that is just right along with me and ready to rock and roll.
Shuang: Because you do promise this overnight shipping for live lobsters, how did COVID impact you in terms of logistics and shipping?
Mark: It wasn’t gradual. It happened very, very fast. And we put some resources behind it to make it go fast. UPS and FedEx really struggled. Think about it. In November, December, they bring in thousands of temporary employees for the peak period. And then, by April 2020, you have higher than peak numbers and less people. So what they accomplished was amazing, a lot of stuff was late. So on our end, we know there was a chance it’s going to be late. We know that because we ship everything priority overnight, we’re going to be in the front of the bus. However, let’s pack these so good that they’re fine if they arrive a day late. There were instances where it was more than a day late. That hurts. And we just have to make it right. And those are the costs of doing business decisions that everyone should make. If your promise is, I’m going to deliver something unforgettable to you, in positive unforgettable, then I need to deliver on that, it was tough. And we had to buy machinery to make us faster because we were shipping 600% more boxes than normal. So I had to get a forklift, I had to get a reefer truck, I had to do all these things so that we could keep up. I had to get a second facility so I can increase physical capacity because we grew out of our location. So, a lot of logistics.
Shuang: And you mentioned the 2020s holiday season, it was a historic period. Tell us a bit about how the increase in sales was generated and how did you manage that holiday season?
Mark: I’m still not sure how we managed it to be honest. Typically, so in 2019, that last week before Christmas, let’s say we shipped 3000 boxes… Well, in 2020, we were shipping that on a slow day. So it was pretty wild. I think we shipped more boxes in December than we did in all of 2019. So an interesting thing that occurred was, the supply chain is still quite clunky. And we ran out the corrugated box, right? We had the styrofoam box, we didn’t have the outside corrugate. And we had to stop working a couple of times, wait for it to come in, put those boxes together and then finish orders. So it’s pretty wild. But how we drove traffic was, search, Google Ads, Bing, we advertised on Pinterest. We did display, podcasts, and Facebook. Facebook’s still our godfather. That’s where most of our resources go. And just have really good promos, we ran some great campaigns in the month of December, we run a campaign every year called Random Acts of Kindness where I give away a free gift every single day for the month, a really nice gift. That always does really well and gets attention, gets a lot of great PR, we were included in a number of gift guides. And we added SMS in late November. And that was a really amazing tool attentive and fully integrated with Shopify. So it’s super cool. We know that we’re not inundating people that have already purchased. And SMS is very powerful.
Experimenting and testing on various social platforms
Shuang: When someone does give you a phone number, are there different streams you’ve crafted? How do you nurture that relationship that ultimately leads to an order?
Mark: It’s super cool. So you can build out nurturing sequences, regardless of device, whether it be email or SMS, or even on the web now. And so we can hyper-segment. So I know that if somebody is not opening and they just want it to get a coupon because you use a coupon to get them to give you your phone number, then they’re one and done, right? Or they got the coupon and didn’t find value for themselves, and then they either opt-out or just ignore it. And so then we want to make sure that we’re always sending to people that are engaged. For example, our email list is probably 400,000 people, but we don’t email 400,000 people, right? We try to only email those, they’re engaged. And then every now and then we have these segments of people that are not engaged but have potential. Or non-engaged with no potential. It’s expensive. Or it’s daunting, right?One or the other. So we got two things going against us. We’re expensive, and it’s scary. So, a certain type of person, right? Adventurous, that’s really going to go after it. So we have that in mind when we’re designing any sort of nurturing sequence to bring people along.
Shuang: What about Pinterest? Because that’s not something I would think a lobster company would want to advertise on.
Mark: Pinterest is weird.But we stayed there trying to figure it out. Because I know that Pinterest, our boards get a lot of views. I think we’re getting well over 100,000 views a month on our boards. So why not advertise? And I think there’s potential there. Will it be a Facebook for us? Unlikely, but I know that Pinterest is pretty powerful for others. But it’s too sporadic for us to do any big investment, but we do like to keep some investment there.
Shuang: Tell us a bit about the different groups that you have to partner with and how you manage all those different relationships?
Mark: We have lobstermen, a vendor, and then somebody that sells me lobster tails and lobster meat, that’s another vendor. So we have multiple relationships. We had one relationship in 2020, where I was like, “Listen, just fill my freezer, and fill my tanks and I’m going to sell it.” And we did fulfillment for them as well. So together, we were quite busy and just kept the freezer full and kept the tank full. And just went. And then as we got used to it, normally came back, we have other vendors that we use as well. So managing those relationships is hard. The lobster industry is a wild one. For example, we ran out of lobster meat for about two months this year, which was really, really difficult, and we couldn’t find any Maine, so we would buy whatever we could get. A lot of it was Canadian, which is still good quality, right? Maine’s most sustainable lobster fishery in the world. But every now and then, I have to buy Canadian lobster tails, certain sizes that are really popular, more unavailable. Fishermen weren’t going out because the weather wasn’t great, or for a variety of reasons. So it’s interesting when you’re dealing with this organic being that resides on the ocean floor. And you have independent lobstermen who are bringing it in and then you have wholesalers and processors that are converting it into products like lobster tails and lobster meat. And then I take that product and sell it or then I convert again. So, super interesting. But we have some lobstermen that we buy directly because we’re right on the wharf and then we have larger wholesalers that we buy from as well. Who has more access than we do?But that’s an art and science too. Because the price of lobster at our wharf is different than it is at a wharf, say 30 miles north.
The entrepreneurial drive that fuelled a monumental life pivot
Shuang: I did also want to circle back a bit about your experience, because you did say you were in Chicago, you were in marketing, a completely different field, you didn’t have any fishing experience or trading experience. What was it about this idea that made you want to leave that life behind and start this business?
Mark: I don’t know. Well, I’m curious and like challenges, and I have done this before. I’ve launched other businesses and the 80/20 rule, right? 80% failed, 20% were successful. So, it’s just kind of in my DNA. And I saw an opportunity, and I wanted to see it through. I loved the idea because I grew up in Maine, and I’m here now. I love the idea of sharing a little bit of Maine with people. It was a challenge. And I wanted to see what I could do with it in reality. So, that’s really it. That’s a great question. I actually haven’t been asked that before. And I never really thought of why. And was like, I did it right on the fly. He said no, I said yes. And just did it. Just like that and super quick.
Shuang: It is quite a pivot, right? You had to move. It’s now over a decade. And now your life, I’m assuming looks completely different from the Chicago days.
Mark: It does. It looks very different. Right? I was downtown on the 55th floor of a high rise and urban life too, now I live in rural Maine, and I live near Portland, which is a really cool city. But yeah, life’s a lot different, I wouldn’t trade it for the world, have zero regrets, Main’s a beautiful state. Lobster is an icon and I get the opportunity to be a part of very important celebrations for people all over the country. And last year, I think about for me, the uncertainty was the biggest thing, right? So it was scary. Nobody knew what was going on. So if I could be a little bit of comfort, even if it’s for two hours, that would be awesome. Our life was totally different than a lot of people and we were non-stop for well over a year.
And now we’re used to the volume, right? We’re doing pretty close to the same volume as last year, and plan to be actually doing more than last year. And we’re used to it now. And so now we get to think about, “All right, how do we up-level what we’ve been doing? We had a year where we just had to survive and serve, now how are we going to uplevel the brand and the experience that we deliver?” So, that’s what we’re really focused on right now. Is that part of it? And that’s why we’re redesigning the site, looking at the packaging, looking at all those things. Because we brought in, I think, like 35 to 40,000 new customers last year. So, that’s amazing. Let’s do it again this year, and let’s uplevel the experience for them, so then they just cannot resist sharing what they got for an experience with people that they care about. And that’s just gonna help us grow.
Shuang: I did want to ask about the reaction of family and friends in the early days of you wanting to pursue this business, did they try to talk you out of it?
Mark: I don’t think anybody did, because I’d had a couple other hustles. So they were kind of like, “Oh, here goes Mark, again.” Kind of thing. And I actually lived in Chicago for four years while running the business and running my consulting company. I finally closed my consulting company after two years. So there was a transition period there. But then it got to the point and it was sad. I kept my apartment and I got rid of it a couple years ago, but I kept it for a while. Because I consider that my second home. And I still have a lot of people out there.And I don’t know, everybody’s like, “That’s Mark, he’s just doing it again.” And now, the reaction is, holy smokes, it’s amazing, just because of the exposure that we’ve gotten and how dramatic the growth has been, and most importantly, how we handled it is just a miracle that we were able to do what we did in 2020. And now it’s normal for us. A lot of things occurred and learning happened, but yeah, it was very exciting and scary.
Shuang: Are there any new products or new things that you can share with us today?
Mark: We’re constantly coming out with new beef products. There’s a beef shortage, so we try to help out. And we have a great partner purveyor right here in Maine, a great product. We’re coming out with a lot of ready to eat, more ready to eat. So we’re coming out with lobster risotto. As I said, we have that Cajun magic, the shrimp and rice bowl, and a few others. So ready to eat is kind of where we’re leaning into. Because eventually, we want to be on the shelf of the grocery store. And why not test those products with the online company. So, that’s a big push. Fish, we have some of the best fishing access to some of the best fish in the world. So we’re constantly pushing that as well.And then finally, we have some amazing chef partnerships. One of which is with Chef Dina Marino, in which we design offers together and then share them with anybody that wants them. So the first one was, we did a tip cioppino for Mother’s Day, that was just incredible. And we’re coming out with a lobster bake, oysters with cell severity butter, and a couple we’re going to come out with a pizza kit, and all kinds of cool stuff. So, we want to always keep designing cool experiences that people can have at home.