1. Farmer’s Markets are growing like wildfire – up 16% YOY, continuing healthy growth every year since 1994 (the first year on the accompanying chart);
2. NC is in the Top 10 in the nation for number of markets, with 182. That’s a market for every 44,000 people. By those numbers, Cary should have 3 markets, and it kind of does (if you count the State market).
That’s good news, it really is. We sell a lot of coffee in farmer’s markets, and spending every Saturday in multiple markets has had numerous benefits for us personally. We eat better. Our children have favorite farmers for every food. We enjoy a sense of community with the vendors and the customers. Our lives are enriched in ways we had never even considered.
But it could be better. It really could.
Because in my experience, many (most?) farmer’s markets are missing a LOT of opportunity. So I offer my unsolicited advice to any market manager willing to listen.
Opportunity #1: Ask your customers what they want. Sure, you can guess. But you don’t need to. So ask. Then do what they ask.
Opportunity #2: Be willing to shake things up. The fact of the matter is that most markets are squatter’s markets. Once you’re there, you’re there forever, if you want to be. The argument for this behavior is loyalty to vendors. They come every market day, rain or shine, good day or bad. Shouldn’t we respect that and allow them to continue participating? My answer is, “of course”. To the extent that customers still want that vendor more than an alternative. Fact of the matter is that markets have finite space. Use it for the vendors customers want the most.
Opportunity #3: Let the brutally efficient capital market sort the winners from the losers. Market managers play God every season by determining who gets in, and who doesn’t. Most of these decisions, in our experience, come down to vendor protectionism. Market managers want to make sure vendors have a good season, so they keep coming. Understandable. And we’ve even benefited from that behavior. But I hate it. Take on more comers, and let the customers sort it out. If there are too many vendors of something, some of them will go away. Let it happen.
Opportunity #4: Be more expansive in terms of product lines. People today are busy. They don’t necessarily need one-stop shopping, but they are not going to The Lettuce Store, then the The Tomato Store, then The Bread Store, etc. You’ve got to give them as much as possible in one stop. That means meeting ALL their food needs, not just the things you think are important. So even if your vision, Mr. or Ms. Market Manager, is The Ultimate Produce Stand, recognize that there are MANY customers who also want cheese and butter, cakes and breads, prepared foods, and more. And accommodating them will help you achieve your mission, too.
Opportunity #5: Embrace modern communication technology. Most markets are starting to get this. But there are still many opportunities to improve. Part of the problem is that people involved in markets seem to believe that everyone thinks/cares about markets as much as we do. Nope. Not true. Sure, we all have our die hard customers who do care as much as we do. But most are more casual consumers of what we offer, and they need to be reminded, stimulated even, to engage in unfamiliar routines. Remember, for us it’s a habit. For them, it’s a chore. Really.
Opportunity #6: Engage community. Many markets are situated near retail businesses. Invite them to participate in your market. To come tell market customers what it is they do, and why customers should care. Most will be happy to do so. And customers will benefit. It’s a virtuous cycle.
Opportunity #7: Keep your petty squabbles in the family. In our experience, farmer’s markets are like families: they’re all dysfunctional. Some are openly nutty. Others appear normal until you get to know them. But make no mistake, there’s no such thing as normal. And like any family, there are all sorts of squabbles. “So and so took my space.” “He’s selling his tomatoes too cheap.” “She didn’t grow that stuff, she bought it somewhere and is reselling it.” The list goes on. The thing is, customers come to the market for peace, tranquility and organic lettuce. They live dysfunctional every day of their lives, too. They want a little slice of Norman Rockwell from the market. Let them have it. No squabbling after the opening bell.
Opportunity #8: Embrace modern financial tools. Basically, this means find a way to take credit cards. Customers in the US just don’t carry cash. Quit complaining about it. Either make all your vendors take them (unreasonable, probably), or find a way for the market to take them. There is a 21st Century Farmer’s Market program – join it.
Opportunity #9: Dump the non-food. In a desperate attempt to have a parking lot full of tents, many farmer’s markets go the way of flea markets. All manner of pottery, jewelry and soap crowd out the lettuce tents. Some amount of this stuff may be desirable, but in many markets, it’s too much. Now, there is a caution to accompany this opportunity. Many markets categorize vendors as “growers” or “crafters”. If you’re not a grower, you’re a crafter. Hmmm. We’re not coffee growers. But we’re not crafters, either. We’re artisan food processors. We recommend you amend your categories to “food growers” and “food processors”. Then maybe reallocate the mix – in many markets, it’s 75% growers, 25% crafters. How about 60% food growers, 40% food processors. That’s a more accurate reflection of consumption patterns, too.
Opportunity #10: Have some fun! Ultimately, that is what it’s all about. Create a party atmosphere. Invite everyone. Let your hair down. Because in the end, life’s too short not to dance to a fiddle and have a watermelon seed spitting contest.