Succeeding at Farmers Market

Copyright Robin Follette
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Winter seems to drag on forever by the time February gets here.  It’s too early here in Maine to start many seeds.  The catalogs have dog-eared pages from flipping through them so many times.  Seed packets have been shuffled around as though something’s going to change since the last time I looked at them.  It’s time to do something more productive than stare at seeds before cabin fever sets in.  It’s time to think about my display at farmers market and the farmstand.  What can I improve this year?  

I’ve been a vendor at farmers market for two years.  We’ve had a small roadside stand for four or five years.  Your display, body language and interaction with customers are very important to your success.


Shelter

A shelter of some sort is important.  You need to be able to keep yourself and your product out of the sun and rain.  I use an E-Z Up.  As the name implies, these are easy to put up.  Two people can unload and put up an E-Z Up in a couple of minutes.  Smaller E-Z Ups can be put up by one person with a little effort if necessary.  In the same short amount of time they can be taken down and put away.  It takes a small amount of space in the vehicle.

When you purchase your shelter choose one that is well lit, airy, inviting and gives you adequate room to set up everything you have to sell.  It’s tempting to buy a smaller and less expensive shelter but could cost you money in the long run.  A well-maintained shelter will last years so invest in what you can best afford.  Give yourself room for your tables, your scale and bags while leaving plenty of space for your customers to move around.  A 10 x 10 shelter is a good place to start and works well for many farmers.  If your market allows you to set up outside of your shelter you can expand your space by using displays for produce that does not need to be protected from the sun.  This works well on days the weather is nice.

The color of your shelter is important.  Too much red is dark but red and white stripes give a rosy glow.  Avoid black.  Solid blue and green are too dark unless they‘re light shades but if you add white stripes you‘ll be fine.  You want your display to be bright.  Your customers want to be able to see what you have to offer.  Yellow and orange are other colors to avoid.  They’re bright and sunny but have a tendency to make people look pale and jaundiced.  You want to look like the picture of health when you’re selling your fresh foods, not someone who needs to see a doctor soon.  Avoid floral and wild prints.  The focus of your display should be your produce and not the shelter.  

Anchor your shelter to the ground.  One gust of wind can lift a shelter off the ground and cause a disaster.  At the least it’s inconvenient to put a shelter back up over a display.  The leg of the shelter can knock over a display.  At worst, someone can be hurt in the blink of an eye.  Some shelters come with pegs that slide through a hole in the base of the leg and into the ground.  If your shelter doesn’t come with pegs you can weight it down with cement-filled buckets.  Place the bucket on the outside of the leg and tie it to the leg securely.  Be sure the bucket is not in the way and is clean.

Keep the shelter’s legs standing up straight.  If you’re tying the legs down make sure the ties are not going to cause someone to trip.  


Your Display.

Your display is very important.  Color is as important in your display as it is in your shelter.  Again, avoid floral prints and wild colors to keep the focus on your produce.  

I recommend painted wooden displays.  If your tables are not clean and new they need to be covered.  My table top is a disaster from years of use but nobody sees this.  I use duck cloth table clothes.  They’re easy to wash, fold well without holding creases, are plain colored and take up little space in my bin.  When your table coverings become dirty they need to be washed.  If your find a spot on the covering while you’re at market you should be able to easily rearrange something to cover it up.  

This year I’m changing my tables from standard folding tables to painted wood.  The table will be built with 4’ x 8’ sheets of plywood.  I’ll rip the sheet into 2’ x 8’ pieces.  One piece side will be cut into slotted pieces to be used for the legs.  I’ll use green enamel paint that washes up quickly.  This will eliminate the need to wash coverings and make the tables more convenient to use.

Customers are less likely to “disturb” a perfect display.  Keep everything within comfortable arm’s reach.  You don’t want customers to hesitate to reach for something at the back of your table because the table is too wide.  Avoid stacking too high.  Three layers of homemade jam look great but not many people are going to take the chance of toppling the pyramid by reaching or bumping the table.  Instead of stacking I suggest you use risers to lift the back row while keeping it on a sturdy base.  Tip your baskets up a little so that customers see more of the surface.  You can add a little angle without causing the food to spill out.  

If you have non-food products keep them separate from food products.  We make and sell handmade soap.  It’s kept in a display box away from everything else.  It’s still on one of the  tables but not too close to food.  Food and soap don’t go well together.  I keep the soap on the right with a roll of plastic bags, a small stack of sandwich-sized paper bags and an empty work spot between the food.

When you create a display that’s down low try to avoid making the customer bend too far over.  Most of us are at least a little self conscious when we’re bending over with our backside in the air in public.  Be aware of your state’s laws on displaying food.  Here in Maine our food takes on a new life when it comes out of the dirt.  It was grown in the dirt but when it’s been picked it can’t go back to the dirt.  We are required to keep our food a minimum of 6” off the ground.

Fill your tables.  Customers will walk to a booth that looks worthy of their time.  Let food “spill” into each other.  Fresh peas and pearl onions are tasty early season treats.  Place foods that go together side by side.  You can creatively rearrange your containers to make your tables look fuller as the day goes by.  If you’re down to two potatoes and a cabbage you should have already gone home.  I wish I’d learned this the first year instead of wasting time that could have been spent back on the farm.

Be sure your buckets, bins, baskets and other containers are clean and in good repair.  I keep a set of baskets for the garden and a set for farmers market.  When a basket becomes too worn to look nice it’s demoted to the garden.  Plastic washes up well and is sturdy.  You should be able to get years of use from plastic bins.  If you’re using baskets with anything that might be wet you can line the basket with a cloth.  Tossing the cloth into the washer to remove tomato juice is a lot easier than trying to clean the wooden basket.  Like-shaped containers fit together well on a table and leave little wasted space.  Five gallon buckets are handy.  Krylon® Fusion is excellent for plastic.  It doesn’t require a lot of preparation and dries in 15 minutes.  

You need clear easy to read prices on your produce.  I keep a chalkboard tied to the front leg of my E-Z Up.  It says:

Thyme For Ewe Farm
         Talmadge

across the top.  This is my farm’s name and the town I live in.  People are interested in who you are and where you’re from.  “Where’s Talmadge?” is a great way to start a conversation.  Write BIG.  Don’t use caps like I just did but do make large letters.  You want people to see what you have from a reasonable distance.  You don’t want one customer standing directly in front of your price list reading small print.  This blocks the list from the view of other customers.  When you sell out of something don’t erase it.  Leave the item on the list so that customers see what you had.  If they want it they will probably ask you if you’re going to have it again next week.  Either draw a line through the item or write “sold out” beside it.  If you know you’re going to have something new next week include it on your board.  Give the customer something to look forward to and bring them back to your booth.  This is especially important if you’re among the first vendor to have this item.

Next Week:  CORN

Don’t tape your signs to the front of the table.  Customers will block them from view.  Don’t forget the space above your head behind you.

Keep bags and scales convenient for your customers.  I keep bags behind my main table and another set hanging off the frame of my E-Z Up.  Scales are expensive but built to last.  Unless you’ve got children swinging off them (don’t hesitate to tell them to stop!) your customers aren’t going to hurt the scales.  We’re living in a time of expected convenience so take advantage of it.

Certified scales are expensive but well worth the money.  I paid a little more than $200 for my Chatillon hanging scale.  It sounds expensive but when you’re running a business this is a small expensive you won’t have to repeat.  Good scales will last practically forever.  It costs me $5 a year to have them inspected by the USDA inspector.  Maine’s Department of Agriculture is great to work with.  The inspector will come to market to inspect all the vendors‘ scales.  It’s very convenient.  You can quickly recover the price of the scales by selling by the pound instead of by the piece.  It’s probably not legal for you to use uncertified scales and “add a little to be safe” in your state.  When you’re in business you’re most likely to stay in business if you keep it legal.  And beyond that, it would be embarrassing to have an inspector show up and close you down because you’re illegal.  Keep your scale conveniently located.

Don’t have more people working in your booth than space allows.  You don’t want to be tripping over each other.  Bumping into each other in a Three Stooges fashion isn’t amusing.  It’s very helpful to have someone working with you.  Make sure that person knows what he or she is doing and leave other people at home.

The Customer

It IS about the customer.  Without the customer we have no business.  This doesn’t mean the customer is always right but he or she is always the customer.  Engage people in conversation.  Nod while you’re speaking.  Positive reinforcement, even in the simple form of a nod, makes a difference.  You should be able to weigh produce, bag a purchase or make change while carrying on a conversation.  Get to know your customers.  Learn their first names and use them.  Make sure your customers know your name.  They want to know their farmers.  The social aspects of farmers market are important.  You can strike up a great conversation with a customer who is waiting in line to pay.  “Hi Sarah!  What did you do with those tomatoes you bought last week?”  Include other people in this conversation.  “Lynne, you got tomatoes too, didn’t you?  What did you do?”  Let your customers share ideas out loud.  You’ll quickly learn which customers are good conversationalists from those who would rather not speak to a lot of people.  Don’t put introverts on the spot.  You’ll make everyone uncomfortable.

Make yourself available as much as possible.  If you see a customer whose hands are filling take a bag to them.  At the same time, don’t hover and make the customer feel pressured or rushed.  “My name is Robin.  If you need me just yell.”

Get customers to touch.  When they’re looking at something feel free to pick one up and hand it to them.  While you’re handing them a head of broccoli to them speak.  “We picked the broccoli fresh this morning.”  Not many people are going to squeeze a tomato so hard that juice goes flying.  If you’re allowed to offer samples use the peach someone bruised to slice up as samples.  

And speaking of samples, do find out what your state’s law says.  In Maine I can give a whole tomato as a sample but without the proper license and conditions I cannot slice a tomato and give out pieces.

Someone’s bound to come to your booth and in a loud voice say, “WHY is that CUCUMBER so EXPENSIVE??  I can buy four for a dollar the supermarket!!  These are two for a dollar here!!”  This isn’t horrible.  This is opportunity.  Don’t bother explaining the cost of gas, the time it took or how hard you work in the hot sun.  All the customer wants is to be heard.  A simple explanation is all you need.  “They’re so much fresher and such great quality that they’re a great buy.  You can try one this week instead of two.  We know they’re not for everyone but we sure do sell a lot of them.”  They’re not for everyone……but customers who take the time to shop at farmers markets generally feel they are worth the few extra cents.  The customer has been heard, acknowledged and is probably happy now.


You

You might grow, raise or make the best product in the county but if you’re unappealing you’re going to have a rough time making money selling your product.  Farmers tend to get very dirty.  We have dirt under our nails and streaks on our forehead where sweat ran through dirt.  And then there’s that stuff on our boots.  We can be a grubby bunch.  We’re dealing with food and customers don’t want to associate food and dirty farmers.  Clean under your nails.  You’re handling someone’s dinner.  If you’re harvesting before you leave for market be sure to leave yourself time for a shower.  You don’t need to be glamorous.  I don’t remember ever meeting a glamorous farmer but do be clean and neat.  Make sure your clothes are clean.  Smell good but don’t cover yourself in perfume.  Leave your ripped up jeans and dirty boots at the farm and wear something presentable to market.  

Got a great body?  Or not such a great body?  It doesn’t matter.  Keep yourself decent and respectable.  You want your customers to take you as the serious business person you are.  Don’t stand with your arms crossed.  You reflect “attitude.”  Gesture with open arms and hands.  Use a little animation but don’t flail around.

If you aren’t good at sales find someone who is and bring them to market with you.  You don’t have to be bubbly and extremely outgoing but you do need to be articulate and willing to interact with customers.  I couldn’t sell anything when I first started out.  It was painful.  I hated the feeling that came with asking someone to give me their hard earned money in exchange for a bar of soap or a vegetable.  You too?  Know that feeling I’m talking about it?  Get over it.  You work just as hard as anyone else and you’re offering a quality product.  You deserve a fair and sustainable wage for what you do.  On an occasion where sales mattered a great deal more than usual I took my step-mother, Donna, with me.  Donna used to sell real estate.  She knows what to say, how to say it, when to say it and how to engage people.  I learned a lot that weekend and I’ve been able to stand at market with great confidence.  Know your product.  Be able to talk about it.  Force those words out of your mouth if that’s what it takes.  Fear starts from not feeling like you’re in control.  Take control.  With practice it should get easier.

Keep busy.  Straighten out your bags, refill your business cards, label jars of preserves, straighten your display or shine tomatoes.  Find something to do so that you don’t look bored and boring.  At the same time, don’t be so busy you look too busy to be interrupted.  Keep your hands out of your pockets.  If you stand around with your hands in your pockets you’re begging someone to not bother you.  If you’re sitting down when the market is slow be sure to leap to your feet when customers are approaching.  Body language matters!  Smile.

Don’t speak negatively in your booth.  If Susie the vendor from two booths down comes to visit and starts complaining politely shush her.  Keep your attitude positive and share your smiles.

Know your product as well as you can and be ready to answer questions.  If you don’t know something don’t fib and try to pass it off as truth.  “I don’t know but I’ll find out and let you know next week.”  

Be reliable.  If you’re at market every week your customers know you’ll be there.  You’ll build a steady clientele.  If you tell a customer you’ll set aside 20 pounds of tomatoes for her next week make sure you have them.  I keep a small notebook and pen in my back pocket so that I can write down that tomato order.  If you know you can’t be at market next week be sure to let your regular customers know.  “I won’t be here next week (or in two weeks).  I’m going out west to visit our daughter!”  Customers won’t begrudge you a short vacation.

The Weekly Bin

I keep a Rubbermaid bin packed with things I need every week.  The bin holds the roll of plastic produce bags, a bag of sandwich-sized paper bags, large paper bags, plastic shopping bags, the scale, table coverings, risers, price signs, chalk and chalkboard eraser, paper towels, a roll of tape, permanent markers, pens and a pad of paper.  I keep my WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program poster in the bin.  Tuck in your credit card supplies if you accept credit cards.  On hot days I add a wet washcloth so that I can duck my head into the van and wash my face.  After market I cash out and return the money box with next week’s change back to the bin.  If you’ve washed your table coverings and basket liners don’t forget to put them back in the bin.

In The End……

Don’t be overwhelmed by all there is to do and not do.  You’ll learn things over time that I haven’t covered here.  Few of us walked into farmers market the first week and knew everything.  If you didn’t start out working for someone else you’ll need some time to learn the ropes.  Give yourself time at the beginning of the season to learn how to efficiently pack your vehicle.  Practice setting up before you get to market.  Look at pictures of other displays and get ideas.  Be flexible.  Have fun!  


Robin Follette owns Thyme For Ewe Farm in Talmadge, Maine.  She raises two acres of organic vegetables and also grows cherries, apples and assorted berries.  www.thymeforewe.com