Operators upping their game as farmers’ markets proliferate

Some are finding ways to stand out in the crowd while others are getting to know their customers better

Thrive!” was the theme for the 2015 B.C. Association of Farmers’ Markets annual conference which attracted more than 100 vendors, farmers, managers and board members to talk about growth, innovation, and building ongoing success in the markets.

The conference focused on two areas — strengthening the operation of the market and increasing vendor know-how in areas of production, product pricing, and growing a successful business.

“Like in Alberta, conference attendees were concerned with the proliferation of new markets in British Columbia and many expressed doubt that there are enough farmers to fill these markets,” said Melisa Zapisocky of Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. “Yet many markets were thriving and did not appear to be hindered or upset by this growth.”

The conference showed some of the ways these markets are getting it right, she said.

“Markets are finding ways to stand out from the crowd by focusing on their personality, and what is unique or different,” said Zapisocky. “Examples include operating a 100 per cent certified organic market, working with food and concession vendors to increase use of local ingredients (and promoting this), and providing more services in the market like knife sharpening, bike repair, or a market-run coffee booth.”

For other markets, building viable business means focusing on customers.

“These markets are committed to strengthening their foundation by learning about their customers, as well as their economic impact. Methods include administering more frequent customer surveys (in the market, or online), taking weekly customer counts, and collecting vendor statistics, such as sales and category.”

Depending on the detail required by the market, data collection can range from simple to quite involved. The most basic example of data collection is by the manager who gives vendors a colour-co-ordinated sticky note (category specific) to write their total sales on at the end of the market; slightly more involved is the use of weekly online forms that some managers email to their vendors.

“More complicated yet, is the strategy used by Comox Farmers’ Market,” says Zapisocky. “Vendors are charged a percentage-based table fee (five per cent or a minimum of $20) on their daily sales. From this data, Comox Farmers’ Market confidently reported its 2014 sales as $1,390,000, and will be able to compare year-to-year growth against future programs (or changes) it implements. Other benefits include continuing to keep their current location by having reliable numbers that show the economic impact of the market, attracting sponsorship dollars, and the ability to make fact-based decisions that benefit the health of vendor categories.

“Whether the effort is internal or external, the outcome is clear. Many farmers’ markets are setting the stage to thrive as professional and sophisticated businesses by finding ways to keep one step ahead.”

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