by Sally Colby
If you want to sell pumpkins in fall and poinsettias in December, have your customers already visited your farm or market and purchased asparagus and annuals in spring? Selling any farm commodity takes planning, especially for crops which have a short but strong window during which the majority of sales will take place.
Mary Peabody, community economic development specialist with University of Vermont Extension, says a marketing plan should always include awareness of changing consumer demographics and consumer preferences, no matter what the size of your farm.
“Knowing where consumers are headed in their thinking and in their purchasing patterns makes good sense,” said Peabody. “There are trends and there are fads, and it isn’t always easy to distinguish between the two.”
Peabody says the biggest difference between trends and fads is it’s easier to see trends coming, and there’s data — rhyme and reason — associated with trends. “Trends are the solid building blocks for future marketing and product development,” she said. “They try really hard to project what consumers will be looking for in the coming months and years.”
Information about trends comes from extensive data analysis, including sources such as the U.S. Census, the Bureau of Labor, Economic Research Service, National Ag Statistics and other government entities. Although some data comes from the private sector, small-scale farms may not always be included in such data, but all farmers can benefit from the information.
Why should farmers care about consumer trends? And if something is true in New York City, is it the same in Los Angeles, and is it true for a small town? We live in a 24-hour a day marketing world, and are constantly bombarded by information about what to purchase and why to purchase it. Peabody doesn’t suggest farm businesses make major changes based on trend predictions, but it’s important to be aware of trends and how they might impact your business — especially what your customers might be asking for.
“The U.S. has an aging population, and that has tremendous implications for consumer behavior,” said Peabody. “Birth rates have declined and more people are living longer. Baby boomers are a large majority of purchasers, but Millenials are bringing balance to the picture. They’re very different audiences, and have some interesting differences.”
Peabody says Baby Boomers’ buying patterns are changing. Empty nesters are retiring from the workplace, which changes what they do with their time. In many cases, they’re also transitioning from peak earning years to a fixed income, which influences spending behavior. Boomers’ income will be stabilizing just as Millennials are reaching peak earning levels.
“But Millennials aren’t into the whole corporate structure,” said Peabody. “Their peak income might not look the same as Boomers’. Their leisure time will come in the form of retirement. Health is important, and Millennials are more concerned about health at an earlier age. What you’ve done in your business to attract Millennials may not work for Boomers, and vice versa. It might be time to think about who the target customer is, and whether your market plan will continue to work or whether it needs tweaking.”
If you’ve analyzed your farm’s potential for seasonal sales, is your place of business ready? It’s always good to be located on a well-traveled road, but in any case, good signage helps people find you. Check with local authorities to make sure your signs are within legal limits. Get creative when it comes to advertising — if you plan to offer sweet corn before any other farm market in your area, make sure people know. If your farm is adding a new seasonal crop, perhaps pumpkins for fall, take advantage of current customer traffic to let them know what will be coming. When customers arrive for fall pumpkins, that’s the time to welcome them to return to the farm for a Christmas tree and poinsettias.
For those who operate a seasonal CSA and are considering offering a fall or winter CSA, take advantage of the contact you have with existing customers and let them know what will be available. Include information about your upcoming CSA in your electronic newsletter or with a delivery.
Remember people purchase with their eyes. Keep any displays fresh and appealing — give people a reason to return to your farm for the next seasonal item feature. A sloppy display of wilted produce in July conveys a negative message about everything you sell. Customers who had a poor experience in summer are less likely to return to your farm in the fall.
Determine how seasonal your farm can be, and whether it’s reasonable to expect customers to return at a different time of year. Some farm markets which have on-premises bakeries successfully market fruit pies year-round, while others choose to limit each pie type to the season during which that fruit is available fresh. The exception might be for Thanksgiving and Christmas pies, which are always big sellers for farm market bakeries.
Products can often be used to help bridge the seasons. A farm market which offers pear chutney on the shelf in May is an opportunity to invite customers to return for fresh, ripe pears in season. If you added Christmas trees to your orchard business a few years ago years ago and they’ll be ready this season, make sure the hay ride to the you-pick orchard includes a drive past the Christmas trees along with appropriate signage about when trees will be offered.
How you and your employees greet customers, handle parking and deal with issues that arise in the market all play a role in getting customers to return to your farm at a different time of year than what they’re accustomed to. Have clear policies in place for these aspects of your business, and make sure all employees are well-trained for each season and familiar with all farm policies.
Provide training for all employees — you don’t need a negative review on Yelp which says the person who drove the hay wagon to the you-pick field was unpleasant or rude. Include all employees in training, and encourage them to be polite, clean and neat at all times. A uniform, perhaps a polo shirt with the farm logo, helps distinguish employees and makes them more accessible so customers don’t have to ask ‘do you work here?’ Weekly meetings and daily briefings for employees can go a long way in preventing misunderstandings.