This must be one of the most awkward things that humans have ever created. No one likes to sell. No one like to be sold to. That’s the reality.
But it’s also real that we need people to buy from us. And to do that we may need to engage customers in conversations. There’s a lot to say about this, but the following ideas may be of some use.
ENGAGING IDEA #1: Watch others.
This is likely the most important piece of advice I could offer you. Go to other Farmer’s Markets and craft shows and notice how the different vendors relate (or avoid relating) with the public. You’ll notice that the most successful ones never give off an air of ‘selling’ anything. It’s just a fun, warm and generous experience being in their presence. Take notes and see what style of engagement feels right for you. I can offer no better advice to you than this.
ENGAGING IDEA #2: Know what matters most to your customers.
A presentation I saw made the provocative claim that environmental impact and the food being natural, though it might matter most to be, was not the most important for many. It’s something to consider in our marketing.
Safety means, ‘will it make me sick?’
Judy Leith Zastre pointed this out to me, “Just as important is the issue of Food Safety. Farmers mostly do things that are great for food safety but are not able to prove it to their customers. There have been big store owners in the past (i.e. name starts Galen Wes…) who claim farmers markets will kill people due to lack of food safety. Using the Good Agricultural Collection Practices (GACP program), a program developed by the food industry participants, not government, you can PROVE that you are doing things right. I’ve used for about 8 years. Makes a great marketing tool! Check out how farmers can get free training in Alberta and possibly B.C. and Saskatchewan.” I suspect most places offer this kind of training.
Nutrition means both what’s in the food (vitamins, minerals, fat etc.) but also other dietary restrictions (is it dairy free, gluten free, vegetarian, vegan, low fat, low sodium, does it have soy, nuts, wheat free?). For more excellent thoughts on this check out this slide show (particularly slides 20 & 21).
This will shift from booth to booth – but it’s good to have a strong sense of what matters most to your customers. It can inform what goes on your signs, what you talk with them about when you meet them and what you post about on social media.
ENGAGING IDEA # 3: Conversation starting signs.
Can you put something interactive and engaging on signs?
One cafe I know has a quiz of the day. There is a question and a multiple choice of four answers. It doesn’t make me come back to see it but it does create the opportunity for a conversation with the cashier which wouldn’t have otherwise happened and that conversation could create a connection that would have me come back. Or what about a joke of the day. A food fact of the day. A gardening tip relevant to something you sell, a nutritional tip, a snack ideas, or some other fun “thought for the day”.
Some sort of conversation starter that has people pause for a moment.
ENGAGING IDEA# 4: Connection first.
When someone approaches your booth they are bringing with them a tremendous amount of pressure to buy something from you. They don’t want to disappoint you or hurt your feelings by not buying from you. It’s why they did a whole round of walking around the Farmer’s Market and looking at all of the booths before finally stopping at yours. I think the central focus of the initial meeting is to remove pressure – not to add to it. If you move right into pitching what you do it may push them away. Ideally, your display and signage are clear enough that only people who are interested in what you’re offering engage you anyway.
My friend Jason Guile told me once, “It’s not at all uncommon to attend a farmers market and have a really bad customer service experience. Some PR 101 couldn’t hurt in some instances, and in others, it’s just getting real that not everyone belongs behind the table serving clients.”
Evonne Smulders, who has worked many booth in her days shares, “Prepare, then tuck those notes in your pocket, walk out there and open your heart and tell them a good story. They will want to connect with you as they connect with the land. That’s all. That’s what you taught me and I give it back to you my friend. Connect connect connect.”
Dani Hollis points out, “Smile and address every person walking by. If you are having fun, they will want to join the fun. Start a conversation and it is likely that the customer will buy something.”
Anna Baker reaffirms this all from years of experience, “I’ve worked at our local farmers’ market doing sales for friends who do the farming and here’s my take: acquire or hone your customer service skills. Great products will do well, but the hustle and ability to chat up customers and schmooze a bit can really help sales. Keep it authentic but focus on building those relationships with your customers – it makes a big difference.”
ENGAGING IDEA #5: Have some conversation starters.
Not everyone is an extrovert. Not everyone has a gift for the gab. It can be useful to have some back pocket conversation prompters in the beginning. Once you get the hang of it, you won’t need them anymore. You don’t always have time for a big conversation when the market’s busy, but, when the opportunities are there, it’s good to be ready.
Here are a few for yourself and your staff.
- Commenting on something they’re wearing and asking about it.
- Asking them if they’ve bought something else at the market and speaking about them in warm and favourable ways.
- “Is it your first time here at the market?”
- Asking where they are from and, if they say, the name of the town you’re in, you might ask them if they are from here originally. Finding out where people are from often opens up wonderful conversations.
- “If you had a booth here, what would you sell?”
ENGAGING IDEA #6: Remember names.
This is huge.
When I go to a market and a vendor remembers my name, it blows me away and I want to go back to their stall because it feels like we’re friends. This is true of restaurants and cafe’s too. Make it a game for yourself. See if you can remember people’s names and a little something about them each time you’re at the market. If they come back the next week and you get their name right and remember that little thing – watch them come back to you week after week.
Samantha Bennett suggests, “Why not start an initiative to get to know your customers a bit better — ask their names, find out if they’re regulars, discover some of their likes and dislikes. If any vendor (farmer’s market or bricks-and-mortar) ever asked me my name I would fall over with joy. After all, it’s a pretty personal interaction and I’m there every week for crying out loud.”
Felicia Friesema suggests brilliantly, “Keep track in a client book their favorite crops and special requests. This valuable market data engenders devotion.”
ENGAGING IDEA #7: Refunds.
If someone complains, use your own best judgement at all times. It’s often worth it to give them the refund or a replacement for the goodwill it builds over time. Trust your gut in each situation.
ENGAGING IDEA #8: Things to consider for staff at the booth.
Your staff should not be eating or on their phones unless it’s deadsville. Their job needs to be about engaging people walking by starting up friendly conversations.
“Smile and engage the customer, playing on your phone does not sell products” says Mike Johnston
Be dressed well, not too far up or down. Look the part. Make sure you’re wearing clean clothes and consider wearing name tags. Consider having all staff wear a t-shirt with the farm’s name and logo on it.
ENGAGING IDEA #9: Hire good people and train them well.
Make sure you and your staff know the difference between a Gala, a Cox Pippin and a Pink Lady apple. “I don’t know,” ends the conversation. Customer service should be one of your biggest focuses. What’s worse than training someone and losing them? Not training them and keeping them.
ENGAGING IDEA #10: Engage and educate people.
It seems to me that you want to make sure that your booth is staffed with extroverts who love talking with people in a friendly way. But everyone has their own style. Some are more comfortable being salesy and some are more comfortable being subtle.
My friend Joey Hundert used to work at a hemp products stand at the Strathcona Farmer’s market in Edmonton. He is an incredible extrovert and would regularly have his stand surrounded by a dozen people as he answered questions about hemp oil, hemp seeds and more. Joey knew his science and kept knocking it out of the park. Once he had a few people stopped, more would quickly join to hear his Coney Island style pitches. It was a beautiful thing to watch.
Pro tip: Don’t bring a chair. Chairs encourage you to sit which will make you less approachable.
ENGAGING IDEA #11: Create an experience.
This one isn’t going to be for everyone but it’s worth considering how you could bring more theatre into your booth.
Brent Schmidt says, “I would suggest checking out the Pike Market in Seattle to remind them that to build a business that customers rave about it’s important to remember that consumers buy more than the product.”
Morgana Rae says, “There’s a guy at my farmer’s market who is an artist with rapidly slicing apples into animal heads…and giving you tastes along the way. He creates an audience with entertainment and seduces you to buy.” Something like this I imagine.
Emily Levy gives more ideas, “For drawing more farmers’ market shoppers to their stall, it’s all going to be about setting themselves apart, like Shayla and Samantha said. Having a product no one else does, or recipes, or someone juggling their produce, or tasting of the produce or a dish made with their produce … lots of options.”
Deb Vail gives this practical tip, “We always had special things for the kids – little single flowers to hand out so they could put in their hair or taste the edible ones. We would walk out of the booth and greet them.”
ENGAGING IDEA #12: Offer bulk prices on lower grade produce.
Let’s face it, not all of your tomatoes are as good. They aren’t all as pretty. So why not offer it at a discount to your best customers off of the side of the truck. Especially during canning season/peak season when people just might want a lot of them and not care about how good they look..
ENGAGING IDEA #13: Make value added products with your products (e.g. preserves, perogies, sausages etc.)
Instead of just selling tomatoes, could you also sell tomato sauce? Instead of just berries, could you make and sell some jam? Instead of just selling potatoes, could you make perogies? Instead of just selling raw meat could you make sausages?
ENGAGING IDEA #14: Stand in front of the booth.
If you’re able to stand in front of the booth so it’s easier to engage with clients, that’s ideal. So many vendors, hide behind their booths. They sit there and look hopefully at people walking by or not at all. Get out there. Engage and talk to people.
ENGAGING IDEA #15: Offer Free Samples
This is not a new idea, and it’s likely something you already do but, if you don’t already, free samples of what you offer at your booth can make a big difference.
If you sell rhubarb and apples could you offer a tasty sample of them stewed together, warm out of a crock pot? Or a slice of pie made from your fresh cherries and then give them the recipe (with a gorgeous picture of the pie on it) if they buy a pint?
Steven Budden shared his experience, “I worked at a few farmer’s markets while I worked on farms and could sell out anything just by telling clients interesting ways they could use items (because I also love cooking).”
Also, if you sell fish, could you give them some free parsely to go with it? Some free rosemary to go with potatoes?
Pro Tip: Make sure you have the proper receptacles you need for the free samples (e.g. tiny dixie cups, little spoons, napkins etc. (and make sure that’s on your packing checklist)) as well as a garbage container for them when they’re done.
ENGAGING IDEA #16: Bundle Products
Could you bundle some products together with a recipe card for a cool salad or a soup?
Could you make a “Meal in a bag”?
Samantha Bennett wondered about this, “I’d love to see more demonstrations of what to do with all that great produce – maybe offer printed up versions of recipes that use ingredients from a few different vendors – so it’s kind of a treasure map?”
Andy Larson of Iowa State University shares the ideas in the image below.
ENGAGING IDEA #17: Allow credit card purchases.
Most people who go to the Farmer’s Market bring cash. And most Farmer’s Markets, wisely, have ATMs. But, why not make sure you’re able to accept credit card just in case. I predict that, within two years, it will be the norm for vendors to be able to do this. You can use a tool like Square Up easily if you have a smart phone.
ENGAGING IDEA #18: Presell Your products.
My colleague George C. Huang shared this, “I once spoke with a young guy who was making Kambucha; it was great stuff! Better than anything you’ve find on a mass, commercial basis. He went around to Farmer’s Markets. But one time, he was bummed out, because he had an upcoming market, but his batch wasn’t ready for sale. I told him to show up and put up a sign and PRESELL his next batch. He nearly sold out his next batch!”
Please leave any thoughts, tips, resources or ideas that could help farmers grow their businesses in the comments section below. After a few weeks, I promise to read through them all and weave anything relevant and useful into the blog itself so that they can be of the most use to the most farmers.