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US News & World Report: General Mills Tries Gluten-Free Sales in the Cloud

At General Mills, a new sales experiment is made possible with new technologies.

In 2008, executives of the food giant began to notice that people with sensitivity to gluten were finding it difficult to locate foods that lack this protein, found naturally in some grains. A year later, the company launched a website called LiveGlutenFreely.com that provided product information and other resources to people seeking a gluten-free lifestyle.

For an international food company that normally markets its iconic brands—including Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Wheaties and Yoplait—on supermarket shelves, the concept was an ambitious experiment. To reach the growing demographic of consumers demanding gluten-free ingredients due to Celiac disease, allergies, or other health or dietary concerns, General Mills would relaunch its site as a new online distribution channel called “Gluten Freely.”

With Gluten Freely, General Mills aims to tap a rapidly growing market. According to the research firm Euromonitor International, the gluten-free market reached nearly $1.3 billion in U.S. sales, and $2.6 billion worldwide, in 2011—more than double the 2005 levels. Those figures are projected to rise by at least five percent this year, and to more than $1.5 billion for the United States and $3.1 billion worldwide in 2015.

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Internet Retailer: General Mills sends out the Red Spoon Squad and pushes gluten-free via e-commerce sites

Two new e-commerce initiatives by the big manufacturer of packaged food products.

With help from “cloud” technology, General Mills Inc. is driving a new e-commerce strategy. The first two examples are the Betty Crocker Red Spoon Squad and Gluten Freely sites—two e-commerce operations targeting niche markets.

With RedSpoonSquad.com, the company is testing a site where shoppers can learn about new recipes, get personalized online instructions suited to their cooking experience, and arrange for visits to their homes from Red Spoon Squad experts.

Computer tablet in hand, Red Spoon Squad members will arrive armed with cooking tips and a mobile app that will display recipes, show cooking demonstration videos and process online purchases of suitable Betty Crocker products, says David Wolfe, managing director of BrandJourney Venturing, the web technology development firm that is building and temporarily operating the new sites for General Mills. Red Spoon Squad experts have started serving consumers in test markets including Virginia Beach, Va.

BrandJourney has also developed GlutenFreely.com, which launched in March after a six-month development period, Wolfe says. Consumers can shop the site for 400 General Mills products, including breads, cakes, pasta, pizza and other foods, that are free of gluten—a protein naturally found in grains that helps dough rise and gives certain foods a chewy texture.

Gluten is known to cause celiac disease, with symptoms including digestive problems and fatigue in some people—about 1 in 133, according to General Mills. Yet gluten-free products are not always easy to find, a void the company is seeking to correct through its new e-commerce site.

BrandJourney employs the Microsoft Azure technology platform of web-based Microsoft software. It strives to make its new ventures revenue-producing businesses within 12 months before handing over the new ventures for their clients to operate, Wolfe says.

Microsoft Azure Blog: Real World Windows Azure: Interview with Dom Alcocer, Marketing Manager at General Mills

MSDN:  Tell us about General Mills.

Alcocer:  With more than 33,000 employees, General Mills is one of the world’s leading food companies. Our brands include Betty Crocker, Cheerios, Nature Valley and Pillsbury.

MSDN:  What led the company to develop Gluten Freely?

Alcocer: Gluten, a protein naturally found in certain grains common in a modern diet, can cause health problems for a small but growing number of people who have sensitivities to it, including those with celiac disease.  We realized that people with celiac disease, and others who have some kind of gluten sensitivity or who just want to live a gluten-free lifestyle, were having particular difficulty in simply locating all of the great foods that they need to make this diet come to life for them. They couldn’t find places to buy the products, and they had to spend a lot of time sifting and sorting through the Internet to find recipes and other information about gluten-free diets.

In order to assist these customers, we wanted to create a direct-to-consumer online channel that would allow them to buy gluten-free products directly from General Mills.

MSDN:  What is Gluten Freely?

Alcocer: Gluten Freely is a cloud-based consumer business channel for gluten-free products and related information. The site gives consumers access to a broad range of resources—including recipes, blogs, community forums, and medical facts about gluten—along with coupons and discounts for our online store where they can choose from a selection of more than 400 gluten-free products, which are then shipped directly to the consumer’s door. We sell both our own products along with non–General Mills products in an effort to provide the largest possible selection to consumers.

MSDN:  Why did you choose to build Gluten Freely on Windows Azure?

Alcocer:  BrandJourney Venturing, the solution provider we worked with on this project, evaluated possible technology platforms and recommended we use a cloud-based solution for speed, flexibility, cost, and scalability reasons. In the end, we felt the best route to go was to run onWindows Azure.

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