Two years ago, I expanded my home gardening project to include additional harvestable items I could sell at our local farmers market. I was excited to try my hand at making money from something I was passionate about, and I was excited about becoming part of a farmers market community. However, I was also nervous. Would shoppers buy my produce? Would I be able to market my products in an appealing way? Would I be able to gain the respect of other market vendors? Would I actually make a profit?
There was no way to know the answers to these questions without giving it a try, and so, while my baby seedlings were slowly transforming into plants that would produce harvestable food, I used my down time to come up with a plan. I had some strong ideas about my vision already (like booth decorating ideas), but there were a lot of things I didn't know (like how to price my produce).
Below is a list of tips that I've developed after two years of running a successful market business. Some of these were learned pretty quickly, while others were picked up throughout the journey.
1. Market Research
Visit other farmers markets and observe how other vendors sell things. What booths appeal to you as a shopper? Why? What booths don't appeal to you? Why? Which booths seem the most popular? Why do you think that is? How much do other farmers sell their produce for? The more times you visit various farmers markets, the more helpful ideas you'll pick up.
Example: At one market that I visited, I noticed a vendor that used a very prominent chalk board to list his items that were for sale. When I arrived at the market (a couple hours after it had opened), more than half of this items had been crossed out. Seeing this sent a strong message to me. It made me feel like, a) this guy has great stuff, and b) I need to get here early if I want to get some because clearly it goes fast. After seeing that, I did the same thing at my market booth and really saw it influence (in a good way) shoppers' behaviors.
2. Pile it high, watch it fly
This was a lesson I learned early on in my farmers market days. People are drawn to plenty so pile your goods high. Make your booth look like it's overflowing with abundance. For big farms, this isn't difficult to do, but for small market garden businesses, it can be more challenging. If that's you, then make it look like your booth is abundant even if it isn't. Created a tiered table with boxes of varying heights to give the illusion of deeper piles of vegetables than you really have, or fill up the bottom of baskets with burlap sacks to make those onions on top look like they're just a few of many. We experimented with this idea a lot and every time, without fail, the more abundant we made our booth look, the more shoppers we got stopping by to take a closer look.
3. Consistent High Quality Earns Customer Trust
This should seem obvious, but trust me, I've seen a lot of low quality produce at farmers market stands. If you provide high quality goods, you will be rewarded with loyal customers. Be a stickler about this. Don't let something questionable slip into a customers hands, otherwise you may not see that customer come back. Although our business was a very small market garden business, we were strict about not bringing anything sub-par to market. By sub-par I mean produce that had been heavily munched on by bugs, wilted greens, or items that had been harvested more than two days earlier (other than good storage items like winter squash). Ask yourself, "If I were hand-delivering this to the chef of a high end restaurant, would I be proud of the quality of my goods or embarrassed by it?". If the answer isn't proud, then leave it at home. If you provide consistently high quality goods to your market customers, they will come to expect that from you and they will rely on you when they want the really good stuff. This is a good thing.
To ensure freshness, we always harvested our produce the day before or the morning of the farmers market. If we didn't have a lot of some items, we'd display them in a way that gave the illusion that there was a lot. | Source
4. Make Signage Attractive, Helpful, and Portable
Customers want to know who you are, where you're from, what you're selling, and what it costs. And you don't want them to forget any of that information. So...
- Who you are: What is your farm name or your business name? Nothing drives me nuttier than seeing farm produce at markets with no indication of what farm it came from. Shoppers shouldn't have to ask who you are. It should be obvious. Create a large, attractive sign for your market booth. Make sure shoppers can see it from across the aisle or from a few stalls down. Some market shoppers are shy and don't want to have to walk right up to a vendor to find out the information they're looking for.
- Where you're from: As the concept of local food grows in popularity, more and more market shoppers want to know exactly where their produce is coming from. Many will ask you directly, but the shy shoppers won't, so provide them the information up front. We kept a chalkboard at our booth that communicated to customers, "We grow everything ourselves, right here in Maple Ridge!".
- What you're selling: What you're selling might seem obvious to you since most of it is probably displayed prominently at your stall. However, in addition to having descriptive signs next to every kind of produce item we sold, we also had a larger chalkboard off to one sign with a list of all the items. Not only did this give shoppers multiple opportunities to become aware of our goods, it also helped market some of the smaller items that might not have been obvious from first glances at the table. Additionally, if you are selling items that require being kept in coolers or fridges (meat, cheese, eggs, etc), you may not be able to put any on display, so having obvious signs highlighting your wares will help draw in shoppers.
- What it costs: Always include prices with your signs. Many shoppers don't want to have to ask and so will avoid you altogether if you don't have prices listed. Lack of prices can also breed distrust as shoppers may suspect you're over-charging them or charging them a different price than other shoppers pay.
- The Take Away: Don't let customers forget who you are. Send them home with a business card or cute tags tied around their purchase. That way, when they're ooh-ing and ahh-ing over their delicious kale at home, they won't forget who grew it for them.
5. Befriend Other Vendors
This tip is so rewarding. One of our absolute favourite parts about being a vendor at a farmers market was building relationships with the other vendors. View yourselves as a team, not competitors. If you do this, you'll find that the benefits you reap from those relationships will be worth their weight in gold. If you're new to the market business, you'll get helpful advice and warm welcomes. If another vendor doesn't have what a customer is looking for, they'll send the customer in your direction. You'll have vendors to trade with at the end of the day (bunch of kale for a loaf of bread, anyone?). And on those slow, rainy, market days, when no customers are around, you'll have great people to talk to and drink coffee with.
Written by Jocelyn Durston
Farmer, blogger and homesteading enthusiast, Jocelyn Durston holds a MPhil in Environmental & Sustainable Development Economics and a BA in International Studies. Former policy analyst on issues of environmental protection and human rights. Recently relocated to Nova Scotia from British Columbia in search of real estate to pursue farming and homesteading business ownership opportunities.