Farmers' markets are an important link in the sale of agricultural products nationwide. Today a growing number of people want fresh, local food, or what could be called "food less traveled." The USDA defines a farmers' market as "a common facility or area where multiple farmers/growers gather on a regular, recurring basis to sell a variety of vegetables and other farm products directly to consumers." From 1994 to 2006, the number of farmers' markets increased by a dramatic 150 percent, from 1,755 markets to 4,385. Between 2004 and 2006 alone, the number grew by 679 markets, or more than 18 percent (USDA/AMS).
Many communities are trying to encourage smaller family farms to participate in farmers' markets for a variety of reasons. Access to fresh local foods, the chance for non-farm neighbors to reconnect with agriculture and those that grow their food, and the preservation of agricultural green space are common examples of the benefits to a community.
Surveys repeated nationwide indicate that consumers are looking for three key features at local markets;
- locally grown items sold by those who produced them, and
- a sense of social ambience (Gibson).
Consumers in growing numbers want an experience that they can not find in the grocery store. A farmers' market provides a social outing for the customer; it is a place where friends go to shop. Customers also like the natural, open air feeling, a stark contrast to most supermarkets.
This publication explains several factors that a grower can apply at a market to increase profitability. They include choosing what to sell, displaying products, making the best presentation, signs, and the impact of proper personal appearance. Employing one or more of them can make a significant difference in the perception of the consumer, and hence the opportunity for enhancing sales.
Deciding What To Sell
Deciding what to bring to market is a fundamental aspect of appealing to the customer. Research has shown vegetables are the most demanded products at a farmers' market. Growers can provide the highest quality, freshest food with low transportation costs due to generally close proximity to a market. The key to specializing in vegetables is to grow a wide variety of crops, with strong associated demand, high volume per acre, and with staggered planting dates to lengthen the harvest season.
Fruits can be trickier in the market. Small fruits are among the fastest selling items at the market due to short seasons and high demand. Most types of berries provide good profitability per acre, often the highest value product on the farm. Fruits are more perishable and require higher labor costs in harvest and handling. Small fruit plants, although perennials, can be grown to maturity in one to two years, offering a quicker opportunity to recapture investments. That also offers the grower the opportunity to be responsive to changing consumer trends by replanting with newer varieties or adjusting acreage.
Tree fruit production is more complicated to diversify over time due to the much longer time frame required to bring the crop to fruition. However the market demand for tree fruit is usually very stable. Shelf life of the product is also relatively long. Due to the much wider availability of tree fruit in many areas, competition with fellow growers makes it harder to distinguish your product and command a higher container size, and uniform sorting could add value to the product.
Adding value is one of the best ways to specialize with a product. Baked goods are normally a strong seller in the market. Consider using fruits you grow or that are grown by fellow vendors and advertise the source. These goods have clear advantages over a grocery store due to the consumer's perception of freshness and the connection they make with you the baker.
Pies and breads are often the most popular value added baked goods at a market. Provide samples and encourage people to try your product, especially a new recipe you've just used or a new product line. Package many of your baked goods individually so that people can eat them while at the market. The more time people spend at the market, including walking around eating, the more apt they will be to buy more from you and other vendors. Be unique with some of your offerings, it will help you to stand out from other vendors, increase the chance that customers will visit you repeatedly for your newest creation, and give them more reasons to tell friends of the good things you offer.
Providing new products and unusual items are some of the best ways to capture the consumer's interest at your stand. With new or unusual products, you should offer samples if possible, so people can test them and give feedback. Same day sales of a highlighted food product, where samples are offered to the customer, normally increase between 200 and 400%. In addition, it is essential to offer preparation information about the product to entice consumers and increase their willingness to buy the product. Deciding what types of fruits, vegetables, or value added products to offer should be your initial step in the quest to secure higher profits.
Displaying Your Products
The most important aspect in selling a product in your booth is how it is displayed. Successfully moving high volumes of your product to the consumer starts with attractive displays. Effective displays adjust to the season, highlight your product(s), change often, and successfully build on your farm image. The price and product should be consistent. The image you convey should sell your products as being earthy, natural, wholesome, locally produced, and fresh. Materials and textures utilized should match customers' expectations of why they visit the farmers' market vs. the supermarket. Weathered wood, slate, burlap, and similar materials work very well at little cost to you.
The "spilling out effect" is an appealing way to display items to make the customer think there is a plentiful supply with great variety.
Baskets are a great way to display various products; a "spilling out effect" always creates a great illusion for the customer. Adding height to your display is another way to attract attention. Have shelves that tier the item being displayed, keeping in mind the most profitable selling zone is between the knees and shoulders. Other display tips include:
- mixing the colors in the stand to create eye appeal and contrast,
- putting complimentary goods near each other
- avoiding confusion by not putting items with similar looks near each other, and
- placing items on display within easy reach.
A tiered display is a great way to focus the customers' attention.
Display is critical to profitable sales, so spend time to make sure your stand will be the first noticed at the market.
Appealing to Other Senses
Sensory appeal is the central component of presentation. The more senses that a customer uses at your stand, the more products they will buy. As discussed above, visual appeal is probably the most important when attracting customers. However, the sense of smell can also be an important aspect of sensory appeal. You can cut flowers or herbs to increase aromas which will invite people into your stand. Try crushing a few of your strawberries on the floor or some other unseen, nearby spot to get the fresh scent into the air and entice customers to have a quart of your berries. Once you've caught the customer's attention, you can capture them with your finest salesmanship and complete the sale
How you portray yourself to your customer can make the difference between a sale and no sale. Eye contact is key. Focus your full attention on the customer; not other things like reading the paper, talking on a cell phone, or looking generally disinterested. Try to hold conversations with customers, such as telling them how you grow your products. Appear excited to serve them, learn frequent customers' names. This provides the customer with the feeling that you care about their business. Personal appearance is also important in the market atmosphere. Wear clothing that is suitable for the market; do not try to be fashionable, you are creating an image. It is great to have a shirt that has the farm name, to add a personal touch.
Using Signs Effectively
Signs are essential to promote the name and image of the farm as well as to provide information and create customer interest. Normally there are two different types of signs that are useful at a farm stand. The fi rst is the large sign which establishes overall awareness and identity. This sign makes the name of your farm easily visible, so that the customer can locate you quickly and easily. Make sure that the sign is sturdy in case of wet or windy weather. Small signs are valuable for labeling individual products. These signs can explain what the product is, how the product is prepared, and weight/pricing information. Smaller signs can also show different recipes and menu ideas for the customer. Descriptive words like "organic" or "locally grown" are also great to put on signs as they apply.
Farmers' markets may be a great way to direct market your products. As evidenced by the number of markets in operation as well as the number of people who shop at them, their popularity is growing among consumers. However, selling at a farmers' market may be different from other direct marketing avenues you may choose to pursue. The techniques discussed in this publication can be implemented to enhance your success at the market.
References and Other Useful Resources
"AMS At USDA - AMS Farmers' Markets." AMS Farmers' Markets. 12 Jan. 2007. United States Department of Agriculture.
Corum, V., Gibson, E. & Rosenzweig, M. The New Farmers' Market: Farm Fresh Ideas for Producers, Managers & Communities. 2001. New World Publishing.
"Farmer Markets-Farmers." Farmers' Markets: Information for Farmers. University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Gibson, Eric. Sell What You Sow! The Grower's Guide to Successful Produce Marketing. 1994. New World Publishing.
Ishee, Jeff. Dynamic Farmers' Marketing: A Guide to Successfully Selling Your Farmers' Market Products. 1997. Bittersweet Farmstead. April 2007
Emily Murphy, Undergraduate Research Assistant, and Jeffrey Hyde, Associate Professor of Agricultural Economics