I just finished a blog post for FMC co-written with Alex Canepa about Amazon and Whole Foods. Our short answer in our rather long piece was we don’t know how this merger will affect food generally and local food specifically, but it doesn’t look promising.
Because of that post, I have spent even more time recently reading about grocery stores and food purchasing in reports from trade papers, some general books, and articles, all of which are sure of only a few things:
- Current storefront retail sales are sluggish.
- Consolidation of stores or of chains doesn’t help the consumer.
- Online sales of food is one of the few growth patterns in food but if anyone has figured out how to use this method to actually make a profit it’s still unknown.
One of the reasons why the media is obsessed with stories about the big chains is because the story is simpler: success only means profit which means either increasing the number of stores or same-store sales and no matter where you are in the US, it’s the exact same story. There is no need to worry about seasonal interruptions, cultural uniqueness or local factors or find other measures of success.
All of this means that in this age, the farmers market story has to be powerful, exciting and positive. The days of flyers in the coffeehouses and yard signs on market days as the only way to let folks know about the market are basically done.
The stories we tell need to encapsulate what our marvelous markets of the modern era actually do:
Offer civic space to all citizens, with no purchase necessary;
Introduce people to good food produced by their neighbors;
Increase access to healthy foods for our at-risk neighbors;
Encourage wise stewardship of land;
Champion the innovators of our good food system;
Support the larger food and farming system as leaders;
Advocate for better policies at the city, state, and national level.
All of that goes back to one of my action phrases for market leaders for 2017 which was laid out in this blog earlier this year:
Don’t Hide the Hard Work.
In order for the community you live in to understand how their markets do all of these things, the market organization needs to be constantly visible and engaged. The staff, board, advisors and anchor vendors need to let people know their role at the market, invite feedback and then share what they learn with the market community.
Language that defines those things markets do has to be put into metric form and shared regularly with the larger community. That is because anecdotes and stories are not enough for those who do not know us. They need simple and directed assertions as to why shopping directly for their food matters. They need it in 140 characters or less or in a single picture on Instagram or even told them by an influencer whose blog they follow.
Now, you may find those ideas ridiculous; I can understand that thinking as someone who gave up her smartphone a few years back (after being one of the first with a Blackberry, and then an iPhone and then an iPad), but the reality is mass communication has changed forever. And not just for young people: most studies of social media show that some channels – like Facebook – are increasingly used by older people. And not just how, but what they are looking for has changed. That is why the sector that is most sensitive to any change in people’s lives – grocery shopping – has become a free-for-all.
We need to face it head on and decide how the farmers market and larger good food system will flourish in spite of this chaos. Each market needs to check in on all of these areas above and ask itself how is it doing on each and then act upon the findings.
This is the best chance we have to not be submerged by the mess that is retail right now. By aligning ourselves and our farmers as community leaders and our markets not simply as sales outlets, we can continue our revolution even as the storefronts around us change names and focus and even in some cases, disappear from view.
Update: check out this story about the new NEW players in food: (and yes the first is “related” through the Albrecht family to Trader Joe’s): Aldi and Lidl.