The Internet as an
alternative distribution
and communication channel
for SMEs producing quality
agro-food products
Carmen Rodríguez Santos
Universidad de León.
Miguel Cervantes Blanco
Universidad de León.
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Este trabajo analiza el uso de Internet como canal de comunicación
y distribución entre SEMs en el sector agroalimentario. La investi-
gación se centra en la incorporación de este canal de marketing
por empresas de una región española, que comercializa productos
bajo el distintivo de calidad, estimulados por la ventaja competiti-
va que este medio proporciona. Con este objetivo, se investigaron
259 empresas, utilizando 62 variables descriptivas para evaluar sus
This work analyses the use of the Internet as a communication and
distribution channel among SMEs in the agro-food sector. The work
focuses on the incorporation of this marketing channel by rms
from a Spanish region commercializing products under a quality
sign, encouraged by the competitive advantage this medium pro-
vides. With this objective, 259 rms are investigated, using 62 des-
criptive items to evaluate their websites.
Clasicación JEL:
Palabras clave:
website, apelación
al origen, empresas
JEL Classication:
Key words:
Appellation of origin,
agro-food rms,
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Primer semestre, enero-junio 2011
The current work investigates small and medi-
um-sized enterprises (SMEs) from the agro-food
sector specialised in making products with the
quality sign Protected Appellation of Origin (PAO)
or Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). These
marks or certificates are increasingly important at
present. A total of 227 PAOs and PGIs exist in
Spain, and they cover very diverse product cat-
PAOs and PGIs are marks of identity that
consumers value extremely highly, and they are
allowing SMEs from a particular region to im-
prove the commercialisation of their products.
But the progress that these firms have made fun-
damentally centres on the product rather than
on commercialisation strategies or policies.
Thus, and with the aim of providing specific
marketing solutions to favour the commerciali-
sation of these agro-food products, the object of
this study is to analyse the distribution and com-
munication practices of the SMEs from this sec-
tor. The work focuses specifically on the Internet
channel as a potential medium for commer-
cialising these products.
In this respect, e-marketing has developed
significantly in recent years. The Internet is now
an extremely important communication and
distribution channel, particularly for SMEs be-
cause of the efficiency-cost relation (Aguiló,
1996; Quelch and Klein, 1996 and 1996b; Bon-
n and Sierra, 1997). The World Trade Organi-
sation has called the Internet a “great leveller”, as
it provides a more level playing field for SMEs
and large firms. SMEs can use the functions of
this new channel to carry out commercial strate-
gies that were once limited to large firms. Thus,
such firms can not only make sales, but also
carry out promotion techniques and public rela-
tions, disseminate commercial information, con-
duct customer service, gather information for
commercial research, and so on.
Marketing techniques using the Internet as a
communication medium include advertising on
the websites of firms and/or regulatory boards,
e-commerce, public relations via e-mail, public-
ity (offering information to other host pages),
sponsorship, as well as the use of discussion fo-
rums, news servers and discussion groups (Car-
pintier, 1996; Sánchez et al., 1997). On the
other hand, the demand for products through
this channel has increased markedly in recent
years. Finally, this medium allows firms to ex-
change company information with other inter-
nal (Intranet) and external agents (suppliers,
customers, etc.) much more flexibly and eco-
nomically (Gómez-Lin, 2002).
All this reinforces the need to analyse the
current situation of Internet use among agro-
food SMEs, and the potential contribution of
this communication and distribution channel to
the development and growth of this sector.
Thus, the electronic sale of quality agro-food
products offers potential benefits, which rms
have yet to fully exploit, in terms of convenience
and immediacy that makes it a valuable comple-
ment to the physical store. On the other hand,
the presence of these products in virtual stores
provides an extra benefit apart from the sales, in
terms of advertising: being present in a website
that sells “quality products”.
This work specifically analyses how, and how
much, agro-food firms from Castile and Leon (a
region in the north west of Spain) use the Inter-
net as a communication and distribution chan-
nel for their products, as well as their position-
ing in this regard. The work investigates the
possession of websites in 259 firms. For those
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The Internet as an alternative distribution and communication channel for SMEs producing quality agro-food products
firms that use this channel to contact the con-
sumer, the authors analyse how developed the
website is on the basis of a list of 56 items con-
cerning: technical aspects such as usability, avail-
ability of navigation menu, presentation, or the
functionalities of the website; the commercial
information offered on the company, the pro-
duction process (considering the preparation
process, the120 technology, the preparation area
and the raw materials) and the product (includ-
ing the PAO/PGI under which it is commer-
cialised); the website’s adequacy as a sales medi-
um; and other descriptive attributes of the site.
Evaluation of website development
by SMEs in agro-food sector
Several authors have pointed out the extraordi-
nary opportunities the Internet offers SMEs
(Geiger and Martin, 1999; Lee, 2001; Daniel et
al., 2002; Siu, 2002). In this respect, in recent
years companies, including SMEs, have made a
great deal of effort and progress in the use of the
Internet (Stevenson and Hamill, 2002). Howev-
er, progress has not been uniform in all sectors
(Kula and Tatoglu, 2003): agro-food firms make
less use of the potential of the Internet than firms
from other sectors.
Some statistics show how a third of small
companies have not yet included new technolo-
gies in their business strategies (Pratt, 2002; Au-
ger et al., 2003). On the other hand, the design
of SMEs’ websitesone of the most popular In-
ternet resources – is not entirely appropriate, ei-
ther in content or in functionality, interactivity
or value offered (Stevenson and Hamill, 2002).
This places limits on the extent to which this
major means of interacting with consumers can
be exploited. Thus, one of the basic pillars of
Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is
customer interactivity, which is achieved by in-
cluding in the website information and services
of use to the consumers (Sparkes and Thomas,
2004). On the other hand, the Internets poten-
tial for SMEs is not limited solely to increasing
customer loyalty; the medium is also a key factor
in obtaining access to niche markets (Kleindl,
In the same line, Ditto and Pille (1998) classify
the impact of the website on the consumers at
three levels: informative, at the most basic level,
using the website as a unidirectional medium to
offer the same information as the traditional
channels provide; transactional, making commu-
nication with the customers possible, allowing
them to contact the company by e-mail, tele-
phone or other means; and relational, acting as a
key marketing tool to achieve interaction with
the customers, developing a lasting relation with
them. In turn, Hamill (1997) proposes a model
for SMEs, offering three Internet applications in
international marketing: network communica-
tions, market intelligence and global sales pro-
In the case of Spain, according to a survey
on the use of Information and Communication
Technology (ICT) and e-commerce by compa-
nies in 2005-2006, conducted by INE, the Span-
ish National Statistics Institute, the main reasons
companies in the agro-food sector give for sell-
ing over the Internet are, firstly, to keep up with
competitors, to accelerate the business process,
improve service quality, improve the corporate
image and reduce business costs. A lower, but
also significant percentage, mentions geogra-
phic expansion of the market, attracting new
customers and offering a tailored service as rea-
sons. A final, less important reason is to launch
new products/services.
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Primer semestre, enero-junio 2011
Table 1 · List of items used for website evaluation
Information on company
1. Company name
2. Legal form of company
3. Address and location of winery/factory
4. Indication of PAO/PGI held by company
5. Company shows its logo on website
6. Indication of product sold
7. Company shows main brands it sells
8. Information on production sold
31. Information on product portfolio or presence
of catalogue
32. Displays photographs of product
33. Displays product by label
evelopment of website
10. Presence of graphics
resence of images
12. Presence of mobile elements (banners…)
14. Novelty or originality
nformation in English or other languages
16. Usability
ite Map
18. Search Engine
20. Date of last update
34. Shows products with prices
35. Availability of electronic sale
36. Types of payment allowed
37. Safe payment assured
38. Company has physical point of sale
eferral to physical establishments for sale of products
(own shops or distributors)
40. Provides information about purchase by telephone or e-mail
41. Delivery terms and other services on website are dened
42. Provides on-line sales, providing price of products marked
43. Purchase suggestions linked to price
44. Provides discounts and oers
Information on production
dentication of product type most commercialised by
22. Information on raw material
23. Information on preparation process
24. Information on preparation area
25. Information on technology used
26. Information on composition of products
27. Information on quality control systems
ecommendations on how to consume product,
29. Weather information on location for technical purposes
30. Description of land orography for technical purposes
45. Introduces company and history
46. Provides direct contact with company by post
47. Provides direct contact with company by e-mail
48. Provides direct contact with company by telephone
49. Information on exports
50. Organises site visits to company
51. Organises tasting sessions
52. Provides gastronomy-related information
53. Provides tourism-related information
54. Provides advice on health-related aspects of consumption
55. Provides sundry news on world of wine/cheese
56. Provides possibility of joining club or forums
57. Organizes competitions
58. Provides catalogues
59. Press dossier
60. Publishes the annual accounts
61. Opinion of endorsers
62. Shows awards and mentions
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The Internet as an alternative distribution and communication channel for SMEs producing quality agro-food products
The main problems of companies in this sec-
tor that sell over the Internet are that the product
is not suited to sell online (this being the main
reason mentioned by companies for not selling
online), and that customers and other compa-
nies are not ready for e-commerce. Other obsta-
cles are uncertainty about the legal framework of
online sales, and security-related issues concern-
ing payment. Logistics issues are the last prob-
lem mentioned. Apart from these issues and ob-
stacles, companies not commercializing their
products over the Internet consider that they do
not need to.
This study analyses 259 companies in the agro-
food sector that make quality products from
Castile and Leon. These companies were first
asked if they had a website. If they did, the re-
search team analysed the website according to a
list of items developed specifically for that pur-
pose (see Table 1).
Results and discussion
Of the 259 companies consulted, 87 have active
websites, 10 have websites in construction, and
162 have no website. The rest of the work exam-
ines these 87 active websites.
Development of website
In global terms, website development obtains a
positive assessment, this being considered very
good in 21.84% of the websites analysed, good
in 42.53%, and intermediate in 33.33%. Like-
wise, usability and appraisal of the site map both
score between 7 and 10 in 88.34% of the web-
sites. A point clearly requiring improvement,
however, is the originality of these websites. Al-
though this is not exactly a weak point, rms
should take the initiative and improve originali-
ty to attract the attention of potential consumers,
increasing the power of attraction and persua-
sion of their websites. This is also a means of
contact with the consumer, conveying image.
Only one website does not show images, but
very few use graphics. Mobile elements appear
in 59.77% of the websites. Few websites include
links to other websites. Sites can agree to include
links to each other, so clearly this option is un-
derexploited. Another aspect requiring major at-
tention is foreign language versions of website
information, an option available on just 60.92
per cent of the websites. On the other hand, only
10.34% of the websites consulted provide a
search engine, and none offer a glossary. Only
three of them include the date of the last update
(see Table 2).
Information on company
All the websites consulted display the company
name prominently, and all but three show the ad-
dress of the winery or factory where the products
are made. An important fact is that the company
logo is displayed, as a sign that identifies it. This
is the symbol that allows the consumer to recog-
nise the company when deciding what to buy.
Fully 97.70% of the websites show the logo, as
well as the product sold, which is very important
to aid the memory, as well as to form an associa-
tion between the company and product.
In this analysis, the weakest point observed
concerns the websites’ lack of information on
the PAO/PGI that protects the products. Only
55.17% of the websites display this information.
Thus, despite the efforts the companies have
made to obtain that certification, and their con-
sumers’ positive valuation of it, companies do
not communicate that distinctive mark efciently.
(see Table 3 - Figure 1).
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Name of company 100.00
Address and location
of winery/factory
Indication PAO/PGI 55.17
Company logo 97.70
Product commerc. 97.70
Brands commerc. 91.95
Production commerc. 8.05
Name Co.
Table 3 · Figure 1. Information on company
0 20 40 60 80 100
Table 2 · Development of website
Frequency (%)
Development of website
1 2 3 4 5
1.15 1.15 33.33 42.53 1.84
Graphics 2.30
Images 98.85
Mobile elements 59.77
Links 31.03
Novelty or originality
1-3 4-6 7-10
4.60 29.89 65.52
Information in other languages 60.92
1-3 4-6 7-10
1.15 10.34 88.34
Site Map
1-3 4-6 7-10
1.15 12.64 86.21
Search Engine 10.34
Glossary 0.00
Date of last update 3.45
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The Internet as an alternative distribution and communication channel for SMEs producing quality agro-food products
Companies show the main brands commer-
cialised in 91.95% of the websites. This is es-
sential because the consumers lack information
and there is a large range of brands in the mar-
ket. In this respect, such is the lack of informa-
tion that consumers sometimes buy a brand
without knowing that it is produced under an
Appellation of Origin, or, even more damaging,
do not buy a particular brand because they
think that it is not covered by a quality label. At
other times consumers mistake a particular
brand for an Appellation of Origin. On the oth-
er hand, when a consumer fails to link a brand
to a specific company, the company’s prestige
and experience become irrelevant in the pur-
chase decision.
Only seven websites show the production
sold. Such information would help increase or
support the buyers confidence in purchasing the
companys products.
Information on production process
About 75% of the websites analysed provide in-
formation on the product types most sold by
the company. More important is information
about raw materials one of the bases on which
these products’ differential quality is sustained.
Thus, 74.71% of the websites report the raw
materials used in making the products commer-
cialised by the firms. Ideally, of course, this
would be 100%.
Another pillar on which quality certification
is based is the production process, which should
also be shown or indicated on company web-
sites; this was present on a high percentage of
the websites consulted (75.86%). However, this
emphasis drops when offering other highly use-
ful information, such as the area the product is
produced. This is a decisive fact for the buyer
when choosing between different brands and/or
PAOs or PGIs, as the conditions of the geograph-
ic area contribute to the quality of the product
made there. Moreover, company websites
should detail local weather conditions and the
orography where products are made. These con-
tribute to the quality of the raw materials, and
hence are a potential factor for consumer confi-
dence in the quality of products. Less than a
quarter of the websites evaluated record that in-
Another key factor of consumer confidence
concerns the quality control systems put in place
by the company, which only 21.84% of the web-
sites mention. Composition of the products is
another decisive aspect, of major importance to
the buyer. Only 66.67% of these companies
websites present this information. Approxima-
tely half the websites describe the technology
Finally, consumers value highly recommen-
dations on how to consume the product. This
improves the attractiveness of these websites
and loyalty to them, creating a means of lasting
contact with present and potential consumers.
Such advice also increases situations in which
consumption may take place –a highly impor-
tant aim for such products. Despite all this, only
49.43% of the websites analysed feature such
recommendations. (See Table 4 - Figure 2)
Information on product
On 97.70% of the websites, product catalogues
or other presentation methods provide funda-
mental information on the offer. Furthermore,
images, which boost product memory and recog-
nition, appear on 93.10% of the websites. That
percentage drops for product labels. Consumers
value this feature, not only for the information it
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Primer semestre, enero-junio 2011
contains (which can in fact be provided in other
areas of the website) but also for the image of the
firm that it transmits.
Information on sale
The websites analysed do not usually display
product price, since these websites are a medi-
um of communication more than for making
sales. Thus, only 12.64% of the websites provide
this information, with 28.74% permitting on-
line purchasing.
Sales are also hindered by not clearly specify-
ing the payment methods available, nor provid-
ing mechanisms to guarantee payment security.
Thus, 13.79% of the websites do not provide
information about payment methods. When the
method is mentioned, the most common op-
tions are transfers, payment on delivery, and
credit card. Only five of the websites analysed
try to avoid the payment insecurity barrier to
e-commerce by providing information about
their security mechanisms.
Another obstacle to electronic sales lies in the
lack of information on the terms of delivery and
other services, only six of the websites consulted
providing such information. Finally, the lack of
purchasing suggestions concerning price, dis-
counts or offers limits the potential of this chan-
nel as an immediate means of sale. Thus, just
Table 5 · Information on product
Products or catalogue 97.70
Image of product 93.10
Label 47.13
Quality cont.
Raw. mat
0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80
Most commercialised product type 75.86
Raw materials 74.71
Production process 75.86
Production area 68.97
Technology used 50.57
Composition 66.67
Quality control systems 21.84
Recommendations on how to
consume product, recipes …
Weather information 22.99
Description of orography 20.69
Table 4 · Figuere 2 · Information on production process
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The Internet as an alternative distribution and communication channel for SMEs producing quality agro-food products
Price sum
Payment sec.
0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80
Price of products 12.64
Electronic sale 28.74
Payment security 5.75
Establishment for physical sale 17.24
Refer to physical establishments 17.24
Sale by telephone or e-mail 26.44
Terms of delivery and other services 6.9
Provide price of products marked 12.64
Shopping suggestions 3.45
Discounts and oers 10.34
Figure 4 · Table 6 · Information on sale
10.34% of the websites have offers, and only
three mention any shopping suggestions.
Just over a quarter of the websites consulted
offer the option of purchasing by telephone or by
e-mail. Firms possess an establishment for the
physical sale of their products in 17.24% of cases,
and the websites refer visitors to these stores.
Most of the websites consulted provide a brief
reference to the history of the company (74.71%)
and contact details: post (95.40%), e-mail
(97.70%) and telephone (96.55%). Information
on company export activity appears on 11.49%
of the websites consulted. However, corporate
awards and mentions only appear on 27.59%.
Another corporate-image-enhancing feature
is information on the organisation of visits and
tastings, although despite these activities, the
firms offer very little information about them
either before, during or after such events. Nor
do websites communicate firms’ activities in the
area of sponsorship and other public relations
actions. Only one website uses product endors-
ers. This would undoubtedly contribute to im-
proving the corporate image, as well as buyers
confidence in the product.
Other information is equally rare, although it
would be very useful to attract attention to a par-
ticular page and hence attract potential buyers.
Thus, presentation of or links to news in the
world of wine, cheese, and so on, would con-
tribute to positioning the website as an interes-
ting communications medium for consumers,
improving their receptiveness to the information
appearing on it. Other options that would also
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help improve the image and strengthen buyer
loyalty to this medium would be the possibility
of joining clubs or forums, or the organisation of
competitions, which are present in just four
websites in the former case, and one in the latter.
In parallel to this, information on gastronomy
and tourism would increase the attractiveness of
these websites. Despite this, tourism informa-
tion is available on only 18.39% of the websites,
and gastronomic information on 10.34%. A total
of ten websites mention health-related aspects of
consumption of these products. Finally, 20.69%
of the websites consulted have a press dossier,
and only two offer to send consumers cata-
logues. (See TableFigure 5)
The Internet provides a wide range of opportu-
nities for small and medium-sized enterprises,
although few SMEs use this medium to its opti-
mum advantage. Of the 259 companies con-
sulted in the agro-food sector in Castile and
Leon that commercialise quality products, only
33% have active websites, and these vary in
terms of their quality of content, development
and functionality.
These sites are well or moderately well devel-
oped in most cases, although the type of infor-
mation that each website offers varies consid-
erably. The firms use their websites mainly to
communicate with the consumer. The results in-
dicate the general need for the firms to strength-
en the interactivity of their websites, as well as to
exploit their potential as a sales channel, im-
proving the transactional levels and relation-
ships with the consumer.
In general, the interfaces of the websites ana-
lysed obtain an adequate valuation, as does the
usability of the siteMoreover, and as in the case
of other consumer touch points, websites trans-
mit a corporate image, so information such as
awards or mentions obtained, organisation of
visits, tasting of wines or edible products, as well
as other actions such as sponsorship and com-
munication concerning endorsements, would
help maintain or improve the position and im-
age of the company.
Table 7 · Communication
History of company 74.71
Post 95.40
E-mail 97.70
Telephone 96.55
Information on exports 11.49
Site visits to company 8.05
Tasting wine and edible products 5.75
Gastronomy 10.34
Tourism 18.39
Health 11.49
World of wine/cheese… 20.69
Club or forums 4.60
Competitions 1.15
Catalogues 2.30
Press dossier 20.69
Annual accounts 0.00
Other company actions 13.79
Endorsements 1.15
Awards and mentions 27.59
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The Internet as an alternative distribution and communication channel for SMEs producing quality agro-food products
In parallel, the content and actual develop-
ment of the website must aim to consolidate it as
a lasting means of communication, generating a
long-term relationship with present and poten-
tial purchasers. Thus, companies should set up
clubs or discussion groups, and offer news about
Annual accounts
Press dossier
0 20 40 60 80 100 120
Figure 5 · Communication
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Primer semestre, enero-junio 2011
quality agro-food products. This would help
keep customers coming back to their websites.
Finally, the firms have made little effort at
selling over the internet, this being mainly due
to logistic problems. Firms should aim their ef-
forts at establishing this as a complementary
channel, not as a substitute to selling via their
own establishments or specialised stores.
As future lines of research, the authors are
expanding their analysis of the websites of
agro-food SMEs to other regions of Spain, in
order to gain a global perspective on Internet
use among these rms, as well as to identify
any inter-regional differences. After this anal-
ysis, the aim will be to compare the position-
ing of Spanish agro-food SMEs with those
from other countries in relation to whether
they use the Internet in their marketing strat-
egies or not, as well as how much they use the
aDResearch_No3.indb 62 04/01/11 9:12
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