by Jack Petree
Mary Peabody, community development specialist for University of Vermont Extension, spends much of her time working with individuals and small businesses on how to improve their presence in the marketplace. According to Peabody, participants in farmers' markets can significantly enhance sales potential by implementing some basic strategies for utilizing display space, interacting with customers and merchandising product.
She shares hints and tips on improving the farmers' market experience through publications, blogs and other media sponsored by UVM Extension. Important things to consider are the physical display, customer interaction and merchandising.
The physical display
According to Peabody, a well-thought-out approach to display is vital at a farmers' market or any other venue. "Consumers use a lot of sensory input in making decisions to purchase. Having a great product to sell is necessary, but even a great product is not always sufficient to guarantee sales," she says. "If you want customers to fall in love with your product, you first have to get them to notice you. Appeal to as many senses as you can to make that happen and you will win them over. Use your selling space to create a sensory-rich experience for potential customers, and you will see your sales increase dramatically."
A visually appealing setup will act like a magnet, drawing in shoppers. The more shoppers you can attract to your display, the more opportunities you have to make a sale. In a fact sheet she prepared called "The Art & Science of Farmers' Market Display" (www.uvm.edu/extension/community/farmersmktdisplayfactsheet.pdf
), Peabody says, "Good visual merchandising is not magic. It just requires a little time, a little creativity and a desire to stand out."
She points to the use of baskets as a low-cost example of how a humdrum display can be spiced up visually. The fact sheet advises, "Overflowing baskets of produce invite the customer in and make them want to purchase. The challenge here is to make your display look like a work of art, but one that invites touching. Keep your displays looking full and colorful, but also make them user-friendly. Baskets make great displays because they make selection easy."
A sense of abundance is important to farmers' market customers, Peabody says. Baskets make creating that feeling of plentitude easy and provide the flexibility needed to rearrange the display during the day to make sure everything is kept looking fresh and appealing from the moment the market opens until the closing bell rings.
It's easy to keep baskets looking full. Peabody suggests, "If you don't want to put out a whole basket of something, just fill the basket partway with some straw or leaves, or something seasonal, and then place your product on top. The basket still looks full, but with a lot less product."
Upright racks are also effective in displaying product. "Make the most of your space by maximizing all three dimensions--height, width and depth," she advises in the fact sheet. "Use racks to display items that are lightweight or can easily be stacked."
Combining depth and height helps make the most of small spaces, but she says it is important to anchor the racks well to assure stability.
As useful as baskets or other display devices might be, they are not what you are selling. The key to an effective display is to let the products take center stage. Everything else in the display should take a supporting role to complement your products. In the background--on your awnings, tablecloths and containers--you should use colors that enhance what you have for sale. This means not using colors that clash with the produce, or that send the wrong message.
Research has shown a connection between color, emotion and consumer behavior. In the fact sheet, Peabody notes, "Colors that come from nature are generally good colors." She advises against using loud prints and bright shades.
It is also important to remember that your display is not a static exhibition. The look of your space will change during the day as product is sold. Regularly stocking and rearranging your display as necessary should be an ongoing effort. "Check your displays frequently and keep your products restocked throughout the entire period that you are selling," Peabody says. "Your goal should be to keep everything looking fresh and enticing. Don't give your late shoppers the impression that the best stuff has already been sold and they are stuck with the leftovers."
Regardless of how your display is laid out, labeling is important. "Make sure your products are clearly marked," Peabody says in her fact sheet. "Many customers are reluctant to ask the cost of items, so make sure that they will have the information without having to ask. Keep your products well-labeled and make sure that labels are attached so they don't come loose. Be sure that your signs can be read easily from a distance of 3 to 5 feet."
Interacting with the customer
Farmers' markets are social events, and Peabody says successful marketing requires you to be as outgoing as possible. She points to three things as central to success.
First, be 100 percent present during the market; you are the attraction. Don't use that time to catch up on email, chat with friends on the phone or hide behind your display. Next, make sure that you and anyone working at the stand are focused on making the shoppers' experience successful. Finally, make eye contact, be pleasant, and let your passion for what you do shine through.
In a farmers' market, you are part of the display. "Be present whenever customers are in the area and wear something that identifies you as the person staffing the area," Peabody suggests in the fact sheet. "Be open and welcoming. Take the time to package purchases up appropriately. This can involve something as simple as offering to bag the product, or it can involve some extra steps to ensure that the product arrives home in good shape."
She adds, "In general, I advise vendors to be out in front of their display whenever possible. It helps to draw people in and reduces the effect of you 'hiding behind the display.'" Peabody says the single biggest draw at a market is a crowd. If the overall market is busy, but your display is not attracting attention, she offers the following tips:
. Walk around the market and observe where people are congregating, then look at your display with a critical eye to see why people might be passing you by.
. Create an opportunity. This can be done by offering samples or hosting a cooking demo. (She notes that the smells of bacon, bread and chocolate seem to be hard for customers to resist). You can also try using music.
She adds, "Another really popular way to draw in traffic is by offering a freebie--a small sample, something for kids, a plant for the garden--any of those things will bring people in, and once you've attracted a crowd, the curiosity factor will continue to bring more people in."
Merchandising your product
Merchandising, or offering product in a form desirable to your customer, is an important third prong in the effort to improve sales at a farmers' market. Some of the strategies Peabody suggests include packaging food to fit the varying needs and desires of the people attending a market, having a grab-and-go section, and offering suggestions and the product needed to act on the suggestions for purchases a consumer may not normally consider. Sampling is an excellent way to promote new products or ways of preparing products that customers may not be familiar with.
Regarding packaging, Peabody's fact sheet notes, "Some customers will always look for product that is prepackaged, weighed and priced, so they know exactly what they are paying. Other customers will want to select and bag their own from the basket. Find ways to accommodate both types of customers."
A grab-and-go section can also be an effective selling tool. People shopping at weekend markets often want to take their time making purchases and learning about new products. However, customers stopping by an afternoon market on their way home from work may not have the time or energy to linger. To help harried customers get their shopping done speedily, have some items packaged and priced for quick sales. You could provide bags of washed salad greens or precut produce (be sure to check your state and local regulations regarding precut fruits and veggies first).
Peabody says that samples can help you educate customers and demonstrate the quality of your products. When you offer samples, make sure labels are clearly visible, and clean up spills and trash promptly. Make yourself available in the sampling area whenever possible in case customers have questions.
The growing importance of farmers' markets
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the 1,755 farmers' markets existing in the U.S. in 1994 increased to 7,864 in 2012. Between 2011 and 2012 alone, the number grew by 9.6 percent, and more than 25 percent of the vendors at surveyed markets derived all of their farm income from their activities at the farmers' market. It's easy to see how information like that provided by extension experts like Peabody can play an important role in helping small farm entrepreneurs survive and thrive.
The author is a longtime freelance contributor to Moose River Media.
From top, photos 1, 4, 6, 7 and 8 are courtesy of University of Vermont Extension. Photos 2, 3 and 5 are by Jack Petree.