Free ISP puts focus on e-commerce

IFarm Network, which launched its Funcow.com Internet Club in Toronto and Montreal last month, is the latest in a slew of free or low-cost Internet Service Providers that are quickly building large, captive, Internet-savvy audiences ripe for the picking by online...

IFarm Network, which launched its Funcow.com Internet Club in Toronto and Montreal last month, is the latest in a slew of free or low-cost Internet Service Providers that are quickly building large, captive, Internet-savvy audiences ripe for the picking by online marketers.

The Toronto company’s main offering is a yearly Internet service membership for $25.99. In June, it also plans to launch a free Internet service aimed at the student and teen market, says John McDonald, marketing and public relations administrator for iFarm Network.

Funcow.com offers the same services as many traditional ISPs, including e-mail, a search engine, daily news, stock quotes, weather and shopping, but at a fraction of the cost. Yet, while it will rely to some degree on advertising and membership fees, iFarm hopes to generate the bulk of its revenues by adding e-commerce functionality to its site and collecting transaction fees for purchases that are made by its members.

iFarm currently has alliances with 200 e-merchants and affiliates, including Chapters, Indigo, CDUniverse, MP3, Reel.com, CDPlus, RealGoods.com and Sony Music Direct, and it plans to launch its own online stores to sell gifts like chocolates and flowers, and perhaps even computers and apparel, McDonald says.

‘The free [Internet access] market in particular hasn’t had a big e-commerce focus,’ says McDonald. ‘Right now, it’s a very powerful direct marketing tool for advertisers, but I think it could eventually become much more involved with e-commerce.’

In the existing free ISP model, advertisers pick up the Web user’s Internet access bill in exchange for the right to collect personal information about them and target specific ads to their computer screens. Users of Funcow.com’s soon-to-be-released free teen-targeted offering will be marketed to based on their demographic profile via ads that remain visible on the computer screen at all times while the user is on the Internet.

Members who pay for Funcow.com’s yearly membership plan, however, will not be asked to provide personal information, he says, and they will have 100% viewable space without fixed banner ads.

Free ISPs have already taken over the U.S. marketplace, with NetZero, the largest ISP in the U.S., leading the way. By 2003, more than 13 million U.S. households are expected to actively use free ISP services, according to a December report by New York-based Jupiter Communications. While the free model will not displace traditional for-fee models – most online consumers are more concerned with download speeds and reliability, than cost – the free market is expected to continue to experience rapid growth in the U.S., Jupiter says.

Last year marked the debut of the free Internet access category in Canada and, although it is not yet experiencing quite the same growth or competition here, the pace is picking up. Toronto-based TurboShuttle launched its free HomeFreeWeb.com service Canada-wide in the fall. Meanwhile, Calgary-based Cybersurf Corp., which also began serving the Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto markets last year, is now primed to offer its free e-mail and Internet service, called 3Web to the Vancouver market in April.

Cybersurf recently announced that its 3Web Network has amassed over 270,000 subscribers, making it one of Canada’s largest Internet Service Providers. Based on the network’s current growth rate – 1,500 to 3,000 people subscribe daily the company says it should have no problem hitting the one million-user mark by Labour Day.

In an effort to drive users to its Funcow.com site, iFarm is currently offering a daily draw for a free computer. It hopes to attract up to 500,000 members by year’s end.

This year, iFarm has set aside just under $4 million for advertising. It has already been promoting the service on radio and is about to debut newspaper ads in both Toronto and Montreal and television commercials on local Toronto stations like Citytv and CFTO. It is also setting up booths in Toronto and Montreal malls to distribute Funcow.com CDs, and will begin handing them out at universities and student hangouts once the free service is launched this summer.

iFarm also plans to roll out a program whereby the company will equip about 400 coffee houses and retail locations in Toronto and Montreal with computer systems and Funcow.com Internet access. The systems, designed to create awareness and encourage e-commerce revenues, will be free for visitors and shopkeepers to use. No timeline for that initiative has been announced.

Meat and plant-based sales are both strong at Maple Leaf

Both priority areas performed well in the company's full-year results, helped by a boost in marketing for new products.
Maples Leaf All Natural 4

Maple Leaf Foods reported higher Q4 and full-year 2020 sales, driven by its sustainable meats and plant-based proteins. 

The CPG co. reported quarterly sales of $1.13 billion, up from $1.02 billion for Q4 2019, as well as net earnings of $25.4 million, compared to $17.5 million for the same period the year prior (an increase of 45.2%).

For full fiscal 2020, the company reported a total increase of 9.2% in sales, driven by what it says is “strong growth in both the meat and plant protein groups.”

“We have repositioned our portfolio towards two high-growth categories now representing 20% of our annual sales generating a compounded growth rate in excess of 25% over the last three years,” says Michael McCain, the company’s president and CEO.

Meat protein group sales  comprised of prepared meats, ready-to-cook and ready-to-serve meals, snack kits, value-added fresh pork and poultry products that are sold to retail, foodservice and industrial channels, and agricultural operations  grew 11.3% for the quarter. 

Meanwhile, sales of plant protein products  refrigerated plant protein brands such as Lightlife and Field Roast, premium grain-based protein, and vegan cheese products sold to retail, foodservice and industrial channels  was up 5.5% over the same period. 

Sales growth for its meat portfolio was driven by “a favourable mix-shift towards sustainable meats and branded products,” but also growth in exports to Asian markets, and pricing actions implemented to mitigate inflation and other structural cost increases, according to the company. Strong demand in the retail channel was offset by lower volume in foodservice as a result of COVID-19.

For its plant-based offerings, sales for 2020 were $210.8 million compared to $176.4 million last year, representing a growth of 19.5%, or 18.1% after excluding the impacts of foreign exchange. The segment was driven by expanded distribution of new products, continued volume increases in its existing portfolio, and pricing actions implemented to mitigate inflation and other structural cost increases.

SG&A expenses totalled $144 million for the plant group alone in 2020, with investments focused on advertising, promotion and marketing to build awareness, as well as supporting brand renovation and new product innovation. SG&A for meat proteins were $346.6 million for the full year, and the company says it expects SG&A levels and marketing investment in 2021 to be largely in line with where they were in 2020.

The company, which in 2019 announced it had gone carbon neutral, says it’s amplifying this commitment while “focusing on eliminating waste in any resources it consumes, including food, energy, water, packaging, and time.”