So far in this series I have covered various components of how to select a farmer’s market worthy of your time, energy and money. I’ve covered how a Market Master is the single most pivotal individual at the market, how location is key to sales and why the day and time the market is held matters so much. In part four of this series, we’ll cover why the market should marketing for you and what research you can do ahead of time to help choose the best option for your business.
A huge aspect of farmers markets that is often overlooked is that of marketing. You need to dig deep and ask a lot of questions about what any potential market is going to do to help you be successful. You should be doing everything you possibly can do market yourself, but what are they doing to market themselves and hence you?
One of the markets that we attend works with local businesses to sponsor a gift certificate giveaway once per month. On that Saturday morning the first 300 shoppers who walk through the door receive a five dollar gift certificate token that can be spent with any vendor in the market. This is a huge draw for shoppers! They show up early and on fire to go shopping just because they have a free $5 token in the hand. You wouldn’t believe how that changes the entire chemistry of the market.
You’ll also want to make certain that they have an excellent web, e-mail and social media presence. They should be actively promoting their vendors and what products that can be found at the market, especially seasonally available products. The same market mentioned above sends out a weekly e-mail indicating which vendors will be in attendance, and highlights one of them each week in great detail. This helps shoppers to build a relationship with those vendors.
Is a perspective market going to consistently ask you what product you’ll have in stock so they can pitch that to their audience in they days leading up to when you’ll have something available? Also consider any advertising they might do on behalf of the market. Ask what kind of marketing budget they have and how is it allocated. Ask if they seek out sponsors in order to increase revenue for additional marketing efforts.
If it all possible prior to applying and attending a market I would encourage you to do some reconnaissance work. Take your family out on a Saturday morning and walk through a handful of farmers markets that you are considering applying to.
Consider the following as you stroll about in the market: How busy are they? Do you see a wide variety of products available for sale? Are there lots of actual farmers there, accented by artisan vendors like locally roasted coffee, baked goods, raw honey and mushrooms? Do they have not only veggie farmers, but local small fruits and orchards as well? Are the other vendors happily engaging in conversation with shoppers? Is there an information table that is operated by market staff where shoppers can get their questions answered? Do they have a hospitality tent were shoppers can elect to sit down and drink a cup of coffee or some prepared food they have just purchased from vendors at the market? What is the overall feel and ambience of the farmers market? Do you see any amenities like live music or kids activities? Is it a market you yourself would want to attend and shop at? What are the hours of operation? Is it logistically easy to walk around and see what products are available? Is the product you are raising underserved at this market or saturated? How many weeks is it open?
A well run and busy farmers market will be Open from the first week in May to the last week of October. Conversely, a good winter market will situate itself to be open from sometime in November thru April when the outdoor markets are closed. In warmer climates, and outdoor market should be open nearly year round.
You also want to inquire of the market master how they balance the number of vendors from each niche that are allowed into the market. There are two modes of thought that I have on this subject. One market we attend in the summer on Saturday mornings is so large and so well attended that the market staff operate it on a true free market basis. In short if you apply to the market and your products qualify for sale at that market you are allowed in – period. There is no discretion given to how many tomato vendors are there or meat vendors or people selling flowers etc. All of that said this market is so popular that seniority is used to divvy out the permanent spots at the beginning of each season. As such a new vendor may not get a permanent spot and may have to move around from week to week for the first season or two. However in time you can earn enough seniority that you get to select a permanent spot at the beginning of the season. Now this may not sound like a great way to run a farmers market, but in this case it works just fine due to sheer numbers. An average Saturday in the summer might see 5000 to 7000 people walk through this market in only five hours. With that kind of foot traffic there are ample customers for all 100 vendors that might be in attendance.
The other aspect of how a smaller market might be run in which there is much less attendance is to make certain that there is a balance of vendors allowed to attend. Another market we attend on Saturday mornings usually has about 45 to 50 vendors. And on an average Saturday we might see 2000 people walk through this market in four hours. Since this market is smaller and there are less customers, they pay very close attention to the number of vendors from each niche that they’ll allow to participate each season. If you have too many of one niche, that can cause the sales to be divvied up so much that it becomes not worthwhile for all of them to attend.
Any good market worth it’s salt is going to have hard concrete data they can give you as a perspective vendor when you ask these questions. As the market grows, they can add additional vendors based on sales data you provide and requests from shoppers of that market. To that end, you should inquire if the market conducts surveys of not only its vendors but also its shoppers and if it is constantly tweaking the makeup of the market to meet demand.
Something else I would strongly encourage you to do while you are out investigating markets is to carefully interview the other vendors who sell there. Be courteous and observe when a vendor is not busy with a customer, and then ask if you can pick their brain about the pros and cons of that market. Do yourself a favor though if you are selling pastured meats, and pick the brain of a chemical free veggie guy, baker or value added food vendor. Because in that conversation you are going to get asked what it is you will be selling, and if you tell a meat guy you are selling meats you may not get all straight answers!
Ask them how well attended the market is and ask them if the customers who attended are actually there to shop. While there should be a healthy social aspect of any farmers market, I have seen markets that are so social people are there to be seen by their friends instead of there to purchase real food. No market is perfect and you will have to do your own research, but there are a lot of key little things to consider when choosing a market. And make no mistake about it, you can do all the research in the world and think that you have found a real gem of a market to attend that is underserved in your niche and have it fall flat on it’s face. This is one area where I don’t mind telling you that if you don’t fail you are probably are not trying hard enough. Finding a good market and a good fit for your business is a bit like fishing – you just have to keep throwing lines in the water until you catch a good one. That being said, it does take time to build up a clientele at a market. Expect to spend two or three seasons at a good, well established, busy market before you really start to get things rolling. The lesson here is not to give up too soon and give it some time to develop.
Once you think you have found a winner, apply with zeal! Give them every reason you can think of to bring in your farm as a vendor. Supply references, offer product samples, talk about the environmentally friendly aspects of how you farm. You need to sell yourself well in many cases to get into a well established, highly sought after market. And if you don’t get in the first time, take it with class and keep trying each year. Ask to be placed on a waiting list or as a fill in vendor and don’t give up. Be pleasant and communicate with the Market Master that you understand and are willing to wait until they can work you in. You need to be open to selling at a second tier market until you get your shot at a larger market, but remember that is okay! If a market is that tough to get into, then it’s a place you want to be and is worth waiting on.