My regular Saturday market stop two weeks ago ended with my pal and one of my favorite vendors, Norma Jean of Norma Jean’s Cuisine asking me to assist her the next week by managing her table while she handled a demo nearby.
So, this week I packed my bag for a 3-5 hour market trip which meant adding a gallon of water, bandanna, Florida water and my watch.
Since leaving Market Umbrella in 2011, I haven’t spent more than 2 hours behind a table as a manager or a vendor; I do help my pals Rob and Susie sell their baked goods when the line backs up since I often sit behind their table with them anyway, chatting about a million subjects, so stepping up to take the money or to bag items is the least I can do.
When I do consulting work with a market, I am there for a full day sometimes, but it is definitely a different vibe than managing or vending.This day, I was responsible for all of the sales at Norma’s table; no wandering off when I saw something to eat or see. Knowing the products well enough to answer questions easily and not in a rushed manner, keeping money straight, all had to be managed on my own.
I think every market manager and board member should step in and run a vendor table for an hour or two. It is important to watch the traffic, gauge the body language, note the questions of visitors and to get the vibe from that point of view.
Some thoughts from today:
1. It’s fascinating to me how many people were thrown by not seeing Norma. The products by themselves are not always enough to signal the same vendor. I think that is a great thing- the relationships between the shoppers and the vendors are meaningful and so the person-to-person connections are as important as we assert they are.
2. The number of new people, always: I think vendors and managers forget how many people are at the market for the first time. When I sensed someone new to the market by what they asked or how they moved through the market, I would ask them if they were a regular shopper and so heard from many first-timers. It shows how a market and its vendors need must be prepared to introduce their items and the system over and over and over again and not to assume that everyone knows their stuff or about the market. And this is a rural/suburban market and not an urban market and still has lots of newcomers.
3. Body language: Norma had left me a chair to sit in (I don’t think I’ve ever seen her sit in it actually) but I didn’t dare, having been trained at Market Umbrella that sitting at market for staff or volunteers was a no-no. It’s not that sometimes it isn’t okay; if the market is a tailgate market and right up against the table it can work (and look) well for a moment or two. However, those deep camp chairs that allow someone to sink down, I say no. But standing in place for so long was difficult for me; as a market manager, I had rarely stood in place for more than 5 minutes at a time and even had a rule to not engage in any conversation for more than 10 minutes. If needed,I would ask that person if I could call them to finish talking on Monday. Today, I found because I had to stand still so long, I had my hands on my hips regularly and so began to put them on the table or in my pockets or add busy work to stop doing it.
4. Even though many shoppers and all of the vendors know me and I am well acquainted with Norma’s products, I am even more of a true believer that employees are never going to equal with having the producer or their family standing there. The confidence in the products and the awareness of every step of the process is not at the same level. Add to that, how unlikely it is that any small feedback offered by shoppers or visitors will translate into action if it is given to an employee. Or, if slow sales of any one item is due to the lack of interest from shoppers or lack of sales technique of the employee. So even if markets allow employees to sell (which is quite necessary for most), I recommend that they add a rule that the producer has to sell at least once every month or two.
5. I love watching and being part of the barter of the market. As many of us know, many vendors barter their goods rather than exchange currency and to see the regular versions of that; Norma gets gluten-free bread for the vegan pesto samples in exchange for her items, and to be “paid” in those goods too helps remind me that we still are not measuring the true number of transactions at a market. Norma also has a barter system with one customer who has a credit slip at her booth-no one else is afforded that system, but I certainly have seen other vendors do that with some of their skilled neighbors as well.
6. How necessary it is for market staff or volunteers to roam the market regularly. So often, vendors get too busy to take a bathroom break or get change or need something and are stuck until someone happens by to assist. Lucky for me, Norma was within eyeshot as needed, and the sister managers Jan and Ann rolled by and connected with me once or twice. Checking in with your vendors can elevate the trust and raise the spirits of a market struggling in other ways.
7. When Norma finished her demo and sales earlier than expected, she cleaned up there and took over at her table, sending me on my way with warm thanks and gifts of food. As I got in my truck, I thought of how I get to finish my day there and then and not continue to sell, to then have to pack up/clean up, count the money to see if any profit has been made, and to make decisions for next week, next month etc. That long day and the added worry when the day is mediocre or bad has to be frightening and/or demoralizing to even the most confident producer. For many of our vendors, they have work for mid-week markets to start by mid-afternoon after market or the next morning or for some, to get a little rest for their other full-time job come Monday morning. My hat is off to those who believe enough in artisanal food or products to spend their life producing them for us.
8. What an enjoyable day.
Darlene, Last post was meant for my manager, not you!
Here’s what I wrote for you: Darlene, Thanks for your thoughts. Staying home to plant last Sat, sent two of my kids to market in my place (though one usually there). They came home with about 1/2 normal sales this time of year. Life-size cutouts of me or a hologram? It’s somewhat unnerving but also satisfying, the degree to which some customer sales driven more by the customer-producer relationship than the product itself.
Richard, thank you for the kind words in this and the other comment. I actually made a joke about carrying a fan with Norma’s face on it to show people as they came up!
Haley, I like reading Darlene’s blog, after learning from her at a Sustainable Ag conference last winter in Mobile. She’s the one I mentioned who now works for Farmers Market Coalition. And helped develop their 38 ‘market metrics’. That is questions to ask about your market, creative ways to gather data on those questions, then use that data to help markets meet their goals and plan ahead.
As you can read at the link below, she’s a valuable resource to help markets like our serve our vendors and customers.
Out to plant sorghum grain now, to make molasses late October… Richard