One of the costliest mistakes that new farmers can make is to be so in love with their own product that they fail to assess how the customer feels about it. Direct market outlets (i.e. farmers’ markets, farm stands, CSA’s, pick your own operations) have built in systems for evaluating how customers feel about your product. The market is an honest, sometimes harsh, place where customers vote with their dollars and with their feet.
Here are a few indicators that you can track to get a better perspective on your product(s).
Repeat customers. What is the percentage of your first time customers that come back a second, third and fourth time? When customers come to your market the first time it indicates a willingness to support you. When they come back the second and third time it indicates that they feel they are getting good value from the exchange. This is a great group of individuals to test market new products with as they already know what you are capable of producing and can tell you honestly whether the new product makes the grade or not.
Track your sales closely. It is important to know what people are buying and what they are not buying and why. Be alert to items that are staying around too long. Pay particular attention to what your most loyal customers are buying a lot of – that is your indicator of how the market values your product. It is also helpful to notice whether sales are evenly distributed across all customers or whether a few customers are buying a lot of a particular product. For example, you could sell one jar of pickles to 24 different customers or one customer could buy all 24 jars. In the first case you have a broad spectrum of customers making a purchase. If most of them come back and buy more of the same product that lets you know the product has broad taste-appeal. If sales are restricted to just a few customers that might indicate that your product is an acquired taste which means you need to think long and hard about whether that product will develop enough of a customer loyalty to be worth your time in producing it.
Be honest with yourself. If you have an item that is not selling well and doesn’t develop a customer loyalty then reassess that product honestly. It may be that your price is higher than a competitor, or it may be that the product doesn’t have broad market appeal, or it may be that customers don’t know what it is and how to use it. But it is also possible that your customers are telling you that the quality is lacking and you need to set your ego aside and stay open to that possibility. You may have to do some market research to find out why a product isn’t selling. Sometimes customers (especially those that have a relationship with you) will be reluctant to say that your product isn’t very good so they may not come right out and say they don’t like it.
In general, if you focus on providing great customer service and high quality products you will build a base of loyal customers that will be your best test market for any new ideas. Always let your customers know that you want to hear what they think and that you are open to suggestions for improvement. Keep comment cards handy so they can respond anonymously if they prefer. And, on market day, spend some time at the cash register so that you know who’s buying what.