by Courtney Llewellyn

A sale is a sale, right? It’s always positive when you have money coming in to your farm, but it’s even better when you can command loyalty – and repeat sales – from customers. How to do that can be the tricky part.

Fortunately, those with success in this area are willing to share their experiences. That’s what Julie Keene-Flinchbaugh, of Flinchbaugh Orchard and Farm Market in Hellam, PA, did during the recent Great Lakes Expo. The orchard is a third and fourth generation operating farm that has cash grain cropping, hog finishing, green beans, fruit production, apple processing (dried and fresh), a farm market and agritourism. Located in York County, PA, they’ve found their everyday shopper generally comes from within a 12-mile radius.

To prove how effective their strategies have been, Keene-Flinchbaugh highlighted one of their favorite customers. She had originally found the farm on Facebook; she visited for U-pick apples, then again for the corn maze; then she pre-ordered Thanksgiving dessert; and then she came again in December for a pumpkin roll and to browse. “She’s visiting about once a month, which I will take,” Keene-Flinchbaugh said.

“Our goal is to create an atmosphere that engages and inspires visitors to our farm and orchard. To get customers in the door, you need marketing,” she said – both traditional and digital. That means defining who your key customers are, setting a calendar for your season, partnering with other organizations and crafting press releases for the media as well as having a useful website, social media presence, e-newsletters and digital ads.

“I truly, firmly believe that you still need traditional marketing. We have benefitted greatly in past 15 years by sending out our press releases, but especially in 2020 because of need for positive stories,” Keene-Flinchbaugh said. “But you need to have confidence when media reaches out to you – and don’t be afraid to ask what tone the story will take beforehand.”

When it comes to engaging with organizations on your behalf, she mentioned a reading achievement award they give out in local schools during National Literacy Month. In that way, teachers and libraries do the work of advertising for them.

As for maintaining a website, Keene-Flinchbaugh said it’s an absolute must, with updates happening monthly at a minimum. It also needs to be optimized for laptops, tablets and smartphones. And while social media is an important tool, it should only be one item in your toolkit. “It needs to be engaging, and you need to be sharing good content,” she said. Use good photos – take the time to make sure what you’re putting on social media is high quality.

One example of how they received more social media engagement in 2020 was to give away something for free. Flinchbaugh Orchard gave away a fruit slushy to people with a given name each day, like Robert. Doing so allows followers to share and tag posts, and a free, cheap item often leads to other sales. Keene-Flinchbaugh said it helped build their brand – and something like this always gets people in the store. She said to consider the cost of the giveaway a part of your marketing budget.

E-newsletters, if done effectively, also equal subscribers. The farm has about 4,000 subscribers with 28% open rate, which means 1,100 are reading what Keene-Flinchbaugh wants them to read. “These people have chosen to get an email from you,” she said. “You want to make sure it’s concise, very visual and gives them something special that’s not on social media.”

More market segments are seeking experiences today, and not just a place to buy goods. Those experiences can include “basics,” such as U-pick produce, corn mazes and wagon rides, or something a little more. “Conspicuous leisure” is for people who want to do something casual. At Flinchbaugh Orchard, that included their Peach Sundae Saturday, their Bloom Bonanza and Touch a Tractor Day – important as a way for people to connect to agriculture. “Events and activities should be community-driven: things like first responder events, a Christmas market, a Giving Tree,” Keene-Flinchbaugh recommended. “We center a lot of things around holidays.” In addition, their farm tours illustrate the transparency of their growing practices and their on-farm classes help create future customers.

Another tried-and-true method of drawing repeat customers is sampling. You can feature your products as well as vendor products. Keene-Flinchbaugh said to showcase your highest quality products and create partnerships with other local businesses with high-quality items. “Feature a product assortment,” she said. “Start with the basics, then do add-ons and upselling.” She added that visual merchandising is important; if you’re not sure what to do, she recommended watching how-to videos on YouTube.

How do you know you’re doing what’s best for the customers you want to return? Measure and monitor their experiences, through surveys at the checkout, through e-newsletters or online.

Ultimately, however, “Customer service is number one, and it’s what will keep customers coming back,” Keene-Flinchbaugh said. She likes to hire current customers when she needs new staff, “because they’ve already committed to our brand.” She also looks for workers via word of mouth (via current happy staff). “The people representing my business are definitely a part of the experience,” she said.