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Selling the Whole Truckload
By: Jane Eckert

I recently enjoyed some time visiting with Gail and Doug Hayden who manage sixteen farmers’ markets in northern California. Gail’s career envelops more than 35 years in the California certified farmers’ market system, a system she helped found when she worked for the California Dept. of Food and Agriculture. Gail and Doug now operate their own business called the California Farmers’ Markets Association, and they have both been featured speakers and mentors to help local and state farmers’ market groups to improve their sales and salesmanship.

They created a program called “Selling the Whole Truckload,” which I find to be applicable not only to farmers that sell at farmers’ markets but also farms that offer direct farm sales. The genesis of the program came from Gail’s observations of the overall process:  “it was quite apparent that while farmers invest consider time, energy and skill in growing a fresh and flavorful product, once they get to the market many did not appear to have the marketing knowledge to merchandise, price and sell their produce.”

By introducing this program to the farmers at her markets they have had some significant sales increases as well as increased farmer confidence to interact with customers.  In fact, one producer of grass fed beef went from selling $300 a day at the market to over $1,300 a day, just by implementing some of the vital steps of Selling the Whole Truckload.

The farmer had been just about ready to quit the market prior to Gail and Doug doing a stall make over and offering their salesmanship suggestions. And that’s the lesson here for all of us.  Sometimes, it helps to get an outside eye to offer a critique and suggestions as to how to establish a good look for your farm brand. An outsider’s perception, particularly a skilled marketer, is sometimes needed to help you create visually appealing displays, improve signage, price your product, improve customer satisfaction, grow the products your customers want to purchase etc. We often just don’t view our farm displays as they are viewed by our customers.

With Gail’s permission, I am going to share some of her marketing tips with you but in no way does this article cover the entire Selling the Whole Truckload program.

# 1 Product selection is very important for sales. 
How often do you ask your customers what they would like to see you grow?  In order to increase sales, we need to consider seasonally extending our crops with the early and late varieties.  If you have ethnic groups shopping your market, do you have products that cater to their palette?  Certainly, you probably have one or two products that are the major draw to your stand, but what other products could you grow to fill the customer basket?

# 2 Great visual product displays are an absolute must.
Selling our product is just not about placing it on a table.  It’s not just about jars on a shelf. Product displays now must take into consideration placement of products to mix up the colors.  The use of baskets, table cloths, props, flags and tilted baskets to show products cascading from them all add to the visual appeal for a customer to fill their bag.  The goal is to sell out at the end of the day, so don’t leave it in the truck as back stock—get everything out on display. There is not really a big cost in creating attractive displays but it does take time and planning.

# 3 Effective signage will increase sales.
Creating a farm brand logo and reinforcing it with all that you do is very important. Some farms still seem to come to the market with their cardboard and magic marker and let their teenager make their signs the last minute. Perhaps if you were the only grower with this product that might work, but if you have competition you might want to start discreetly comparing their signage to your own.  There are now simple computer programs that create professional looking signage that could be printed on your color printer. If you have multiple language customers, let them know you want their business with bilingual signs.

There are other ways to attract attention to your stand, including flags waving in the breeze, a standing portable banner with printing at a good visual height or a specific use of color that becomes your brand. Prospective customers can walk by your market stall in less than 10 seconds and the use of good color and attractive signage will often either bring them in to look at your product or fail to catch their eye, and you’ll watch them move on.

# 4 Creating positive customer satisfaction is key to repeat business.
None of us can survive on someone shopping with us just once.  We must create loyal, returning customers who want to shop with us again and again. The smart operators know that acknowledging a waiting customer, greeting your customers by name, thanking them for the sale and telling them we will see you next week can go a long way to gaining satisfied, repeat customers. It is certainly easy to say we want to follow the golden rule of treating others the way we want to be treated, but in reality the execution of this phrase requires a consistent positive mindset.

#5 Training our employees (and the owners) to become better at salesmanship is essential for growth
No one wants to enter a booth with the employee scanning their phone or talking to another employee, or overhearing a conversation of employees talking about the last customers that just paid.  We’ve all had this experience, and yet we still may fail to train and motivate ourselves and our employees to be the best at the market at all times. It should be noted, of course, that even good salesmanship cannot overcome poor quality. If, at the end of the day, you are substituting seconds for the number one grade, be straight forward about it.  Explain the situation and give your customer a discount, encouraging them to visit earlier next time to experience your very best.

Another important aspect of training is to never assume that an employee knows what you know about your products.  If you offer several varieties of apples, then your employees need to know the difference in flavor and whether they are best eaten, cooked or baked. 

They cannot be good salesmen if they have never tasted your heirloom tomatoes or they don’t understand the special growing techniques that justify a premium price.

Gail and Doug Hayden’s program, Selling the Whole Truckload, helps farmers see our products from the customer’s perspective.  Whether we are selling at the farmers ’ market or the farm stand on the farm, our goal is to pick fresh each morning, and sell it all by the end of each day. At the same time, the customer’s goal is to buy the freshest, best tasting and healthiest food available at a fair price. 

What Gail teaches us is that marketing is an essential tool that will help both seller and consumer reach their goals—when treated right, the consumer will return to the farmers’ market instead of the supermarket because she or he knows that everything is fresh picked at the peak of flavor and nutrition.  And the farmer will return to the farmers’ market with renewed anticipation that it will be another sell out day!

Jane Eckert, a national speaker, author and agritourism expert, is principal of Eckert AgriMarketing (www.eckertagrimarketing.com), a firm that helps farmers sell products directly to consumers and develop their operations into tourist destinations, and Farm Web Design, an Internet marketing firm specializing in agritourism farm websites.  She is also CEO of RuralBounty.com, a consumer based directory of agritourism farms in North America. Jane can be reached by phone 314-862-6288 or at jane@eckertagrimarketing.com