What grocery retailers can learn from traditional farmers’ markets

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Farmers' market organisations say shoppers appreciate the opportunity to get to know growers and learn about the varieties of produce on offer

Seasonal produce available at farmers market

Farmers’ markets are widely appreciated by shoppers for providing fresh food – particularly fruits and vegetables – that are locally produced, well presented and of high quality. As the model experiences something of a revival, Produce Business UK examines the approach taken by farmers’ markets to learn how they are impacting and can even influence the provision and sale of fresh produce in food retailers

A common definition of a farmers' market is “a market where local farmers and growers sell their produce directly to the public”. Their objective is not to compete with supermarkets but to serve producers and customers the best way they can. So says Mike Mack, a representative of The National Farmers’ Retail & Markets Association (FARMA) – the UK-wide organisation that unites over 430 members, mostly farmers or market managers.

“For the customer, the supermarket is about having a quick and easy interaction to get what they need, whereas the farmers’ market is an experience; somewhere people go to wander around and find good quality produce that comes directly from the source,” Mack explains, adding that FARMA’s main priority is to champion any farmer who wants to sell directly to the public, either through farmers’ markets, shops or other distribution channels.

With local produce forming the backbone of sales, fresh fruits and vegetables obviously play a huge role at farmers’ market but there are limitations to supply. “They are an incredibly important part of farmers market,” affirms Mack. “However, we are challenged by the seasonality of produce; the farmers obviously only being able to produce what is grown in the UK during that specific season.”   

But it all adds to the charm of local provenance, with London Farmers’ Markets (LFM) representative Cheryl Cohen noting that one of the attractions for consumers is most markets offer fresh fruit and vegetables that are “never seen” at supermarkets. Indeed, farmers’ markets are clearly in vogue with UK shoppers. Last year alone, LFM, which runs 22 farmers’ markets across the city, welcomed over 1 million visitors to its locations.

Mack shares Cohen’s view, adding that despite being hit quite heavily by the recession, farmers’ markets have continued to run on a consistent basis, many of which (particularly in London) have bounced back strongly in recent years. One such market is Moseley Market in Birmingham, which was recently awarded the 2016 ‘FARMA’s Farmers’ Market of the Year’. 

FARMA farmers market

Successful farmers’ market tactics

With such staying power and consumer appreciation, the adoption of non-traditional approaches, such as farmers’ market tactics, has become a subtle but well practiced one among food retailers, as Ray Gaul, vice-president of research and analytics of retail insights at Kantar Retail explains.

“Retailers are always looking for opportunities to bring in something new and different to attract customers, and the farmers’ market style of selling is a popular one,” he tells Produce Business UK.  

By way of example, Gaul mentions Tesco’s adoption in 2005 of attractive fresh fruit and vegetable displays – inspired by Barcelona’s famous La Boquería market – in an effort to create a “wow effect” for customers when they entered the supermarket operator’s stores.

Another example is Lidl, which famously held a campaign recently in the UK called ‘Little Market’. The discounter cleverly established a pop-up farmers’ market stocked with its own produce and videoed customers’ surprised faces as they realised the fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses they were sampling and purchasing were in fact from Lidl.

Another farmers’ market tactic Gaul draws attention to is the increasingly widespread use of chalkboards and farmers’ market-style signage by retailers, which has proven very popular across the retail spectrum. 

London Farmers Markets berries

Other merchandising tips can retailers learn

Considering this copycat behaviour, Mack at FARMA says its members can only be “flattered” by how supermarket operators are adopting certain farmers’ market-style tactics. “The supermarkets are seeing that farmers’ markets are something that carry integrity and quality, which is always a good thing.”

Retail analyst Gaul suggests the supermarkets could even go one step further in terms of picking up further merchandising tips from farmers’ markets. In particular, he mentions areas such as presentation – how fruits and vegetables are displayed and advertised, for example. This is a key component to the success of farmers’ markets, and Gaul highlights the lengths of creative detail to which farmers and stall owners go in telling a story about each of their products.

“Most retailers do not know the story of the product and they need to listen to their supplier as they have interesting things to say about those products,” he claims. “For instance, Marks & Spencer is good at this... It learns the story of the farmer and brings it into its advertising.”

Gaul, Mack and Cohen are all in agreement that the personal connection made between buyers and sellers at farmers’ market is also an attractive quality for consumers, as well as the satisfaction of knowing they are being sold quality produce via good customer service.

“Customers like buying from friendly farmers and stall holders,” says Cohen at LFM. “They like knowing where their food is coming from and they appreciate the good service. They love getting to know the farmers, and finding out about the varieties of fruit that supermarkets don’t sell.

“They equally love the high quality and taste, and the fact that produce is freshly picked and brought to market instead of being driven half way around the country and spending weeks in a coldstore. Most of our 1 million visitors last year had shopped [at a farmers’ market] on a weekly basis.”

Although Gaul does attest to retailers already attempting to take on a more personal approach with customers, he admits putting this into practice can often be difficult. “Within supermarkets, having someone available everyday in the fruit and vegetable department to make a personal connection with the shopper is a challenge,” he explains.

“Retailers like Asda do think about customers a lot. For example, Asda takes into consideration [festivals like] Ramadan when stocking various fruit and vegetables. However, for a typical retailer, the idea of training every member of staff to become an expert in fruits and vegetables is difficult as staff normally stay for one to two years, so when they leave their knowledge leaves the business too.

“At a farmers’ market, stall owners are typically in the business for life so they tend to have a lot of experience and knowledge. Retailers almost need to build an institutional way of learning these things, such as building into their general training the stories of their products.”

Another challenge Gaul highlights is the fact that retailers can’t completely replicate the farmers’ market approach when it comes to selling produce. “There is the challenge of providing produce that is of good value and will last for more than a few days,” he says. “Retailers have to open every day of the year so they cannot play with timing and seasons as much as farmers can. For example, farmers’ markets can choose to run their pop-up event and sell produce during peak seasons.”

While retailers can seek to replicate a number of successful merchandising tips from farmers’ markets in order to sell more fresh fruits and vegetables, at the end of the day Gaul concludes that despite their enormous success, farmers’ markets do not represent a “huge problem” to retailers since they cannot offer all that the supermarket does.

On the whole though, it appears retailers would do well to use certain farmers’ market tactics to their advantage in order to give shoppers more knowledge of the quality produce being made available to them and a shopping experience that offers them more impetus to buy.

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