by Sally Colby
Lindsay Wilcox, marketing advisor for the Farmers Market Federation of New York, says when it comes to improving the farmer/customer interface at farmers markets, the “hit and hope” approach doesn’t win.
“There’s a concern that farmers markets aren’t what they used to be,” said Wilcox. “Vendors are seeing lower sales and less customer traffic and there’s a negative buzz out there.”
The Farmers Market Federation of NY wanted to take a proactive approach to solving the problem of declining attendance and found through a survey that sales at farmers markets were down 20 to 70 percent across the state. In addition, 61 percent of survey participants were concerned about the future viability of farmers markets. But New York isn’t alone. Other states have seen drops in attendance, some of which may be the result of media reports stating farmers markets aren’t being true to what customers believe they should be — selling fresh products raised on that farm or a local farm.
Wilcox urges vendors to focus on the opportunity of positioning themselves with a unique selling point and capitalizing on the fact they’re the farmer. Shoppers have the opportunity to talk with you as the vendor and learn about what farmers do to bring lettuce, maple syrup, seasonal produce and other farm-fresh products to the market, which goes back to the core reason farmers markets became popular among consumers.
It’s important vendors take an active role in the customer’s shopping experience and invite them into the booth. “One of the best ways to do this is to use the 10-4 rule,” said Wilcox. “If you look out from your booth and someone is about 10 feet away, try to make eye contact. Smile and show them that you see them. If they’re closer, about four feet, say something like a simple ‘hello’ or ‘great to see you’.” Vendors don’t have to say, “come into my booth” — a smile and a simple greeting is enough to encourage interested customers to make the next move.
The way customers perceive vendors at market can go a long way in selling products. “Perception is reality,” said Wilcox. “How you present yourself is how you will be perceived. If you have the best tomatoes but show up to market without changing your clothes, that sends a signal to the customer that you don’t care.” Wilcox stressed the importance of neat, clean apparel and suggests shirts (any color but white) with the farm name or logo to help distinguish you as the farmer. Keep more than one shirt on hand in case a change is in order. Wilcox says an important aspect of presentation involves staying busy because movement attracts shoppers.
Remember to smile — customers want to feel good and want to feel as if the market and vendors are grateful for their presence. Be careful not to hover and make people feel as if they’re being monitored. Allow customers to handle items, even if it makes you cringe. If certain items shouldn’t be handled for food safety reasons create simple, friendly signage to indicate such.
Wilcox says because people are most accustomed to shopping in grocery stores, vendors should mimic clever grocery store merchandising. “People want to be in an active mode when they make a purchase,” she said. “The best way to spur people to that point is get them excited. You can let your product bring people in. Use color creatively when placing items so the eye moves. Another way is to pull the eye in and out, up and down.”
Customers should not have to ask about prices, so be sure all items have neat, clear signage which also includes a brief product description or food fact. Signs should be visible from all angles. This ensures the customer can see the price from wherever they are in your booth. Wilcox suggests creating signs which are bright and colorful, not just black marker on cardboard. Provide tips about what to do with items that might be unfamiliar or tips for using more familiar items in new ways. Choose an item to feature each week, something that’s plentiful and you can sell at a lower than usual price. Make it easy for customers to carry their selections by placing bags or baskets throughout your display.
Items such as crates or baskets used to create displays may seem commonplace to you, but will look authentic and say “farm” to your customer. If products displayed in crates or baskets are running low, remove the items and place in a smaller container or on the table to avoid the look of that item being picked over.
Wilcox says meal delivery kits such as Blue Apron and Hello Fresh are popular because people don’t have to think about how much they need to buy, and having the ingredients they need to create a meal makes them feel very accomplished. For farmer market vendors, she suggests creating a box available the day of market which contains a week’s worth of products along with recipes. Wilcox added that the customer shouldn’t have to do any guesswork with an offer such as this. “Put it all in the box, make a beautiful display and say ‘this box is $30 and comes with five recipes.’ You can justify a higher cost because you’re giving them the convenience they want.”
Whenever possible, add value to a transaction by providing inside information which distinguishes you as a farmer. Wilcox says what may seem like second nature to you can be an “aha” moment for the customer. Share nutrition facts and other information about the products you grow and sell. Offer recipes you’ve made which include products you sell and tips for product storage and preparation. Use a chalkboard to provide nutrition facts on produce as a conversation starter.
Targeting specific consumer groups helps bring customers to farmers markets. Vendors are too small to compete with large grocery chains but that’s an opportunity to tailor your offerings. “The highest average sales [at farmers markets] are coming from families and senior citizens,” said Wilcox. “How can you adapt what you’re doing to meet their needs? Can you offer seniors a discount? Are there things you can do to appeal to kids?” Wilcox says accepting senior FMNP checks, WIC FMNP checks and Fresh Connect Veterans checks helps vendors bring in more customers.
Many people prefer shopping with plastic rather than cash, which can be turned into an opportunity. “Accept SNAP and EBT,” said Wilcox. “You can accept SNAP by having a card reader terminal. You will open up to a whole new market.” Wilcox says even if your market is in a high-income area, accepting SNAP shows you care, which appeals to all customers. If you haven’t already done so, make provisions to accept credit card payments. “Eighty-three percent of businesses that accept credit cards make more sales, with 52 percent making at least $1,000 more per month,” said Wilcox, adding vendors can encourage cash payments by offering a discount for cash.
Always use opportunities to bond with customers beyond the booth. “You are a real farmer,” said Wilcox. “You have a chance to build a bond with customers and that is of value to them. Sharing that experience through social media and email when they’re not in front of you goes a long way.”