Does the farmers market need more technology?

Investigating customer and vendor experiences at the farmers markets

Compared to a modern-day grocery store, walking through a local farmers market can feel like an experience from a different era. Produce arranged in makeshift booths, hand-drawn signs, cash. Unlike so many things today, the farmers market appears to operate without the aid of technology. Why is that? Is technology simply not necessary? Or, are there ways in which technology could improve the experience at a farmers market?

Motivated by these questions and our own curiosity, a few of us at Viget set out to investigate the farmers market experience from both a customer and a vendor perspective.

Initially, we discussed many of our own personal frustrations. We wanted to shop at farmers markets more often but it felt inconvenient. In fact, buying produce in general felt shrouded in mystery. Were we getting a fair price? Where did that tomato come from and how was it grown? Would it even taste good?

For the vendor, selling produce seemed like a ton of effort. In the end, how valuable were farmers markets really?

For more insight on these questions, we chose to visit local farmers markets in Raleigh, NC, and Washington, DC. Here’s what we found.

To squeeze or not to squeeze

In grocery stores, customers often squeeze produce to test its ripeness.

The vendors we spoke with said this was one of their biggest pet peeves. Because their produce is near-peak ripeness, handling it leads to bruised, unsellable produce. This reduces their inventory and revenue.

Vendors try to correct this behavior by placing instructional signs in the bins, but these are often overlooked or ignored. When this happens, gentle reprimands follow.

This creates friction for both vendors and customers. The customer’s learned behavior — to squeeze — conflicts with with the market customs — don’t squeeze.

How could we help customers test ripeness while limiting the cost to the vendor? One simple idea is to have small bins of “sacrificial produce” that customers are encouraged to handle.

Free samples

Beyond demonstrating quality and piquing appetites, free samples may trigger a reciprocity effect in customers.

One of our researchers found that accepting a small sample from a vendor — but not buying anything — made him feel uneasy. Offering a few compliments helped balance out the favor, but not completely.

Why is this?

We suspect that taking a sample from a self-service plate feels less obligating than taking one handed over by a vendor. The presence of the vendor introduces a social pressure, which increases when you know they had a hand in growing it.

How could the way “free samples” are offered be modified to increase sales? In effect, could we A/B test free samples?

Too many bags

Some forward-thinking shoppers came to the market armed with their reusable tote bags, but many did not. As the latter group shopped at multiple stalls, the number of bags they held increased.

This introduced a bottleneck. The act of unweaving fingers to grab a wallet makes purchasing increasingly unattractive. And at some point, there’s no way to carry anything else in your hands; shopping has to stop.

One simple way to improve this experience would be to offer small rolling baskets to customers. These lighten the load, free up hands, and increase carrying capacity.

Aside from improving customer experience, perhaps this would have a positive business impact as well. We surmised that making shopping easier would increase the average revenue per customer.

Thinking further, what if checkout could be centralized? Vendors could weigh and tag items, which customers would then pay for later. The funds would be distributed back to the vendors at the end of each day. This promises to remove even more friction from the system, though it could introduce a new concern: how to deal with theft.

The knowledge gap

We asked vendors about the most common questions that customers ask. These included:

  1. Is this organic?
  2. Did you grow it yourself?
  3. Why does it cost as much as in the grocery store?
  4. When is {varietal} in season?

There’s often a knowledge gap between vendors and customers. While conversing with vendors is basic to the farmers market experience, an opportunity does exist to reduce customer confusion and increase transparency. Publishing produce availability, answers to common questions, and even vendor profiles to well-trafficked channels could help capture new customers and strengthen relationships with existing ones.

Cash is king

A few vendors we visited had transitioned to credit card processing tools like Square, but many were exclusively cash-based. Investigating further, their rationale was that these platforms add an additional fee, which cuts into already thin margins. They didn’t feel the expense was justifiable when their transactions hovered in the $2-$3 dollar range.

However, players like Square have made it easy and economically viable for anyone to accept credit and debit card payments. So, we suspect the lower adoption we saw was rooted in residual, negative impressions of credit card processors. In the example above, the fees to Square would range from $0.05 -$0.08 per transaction — hardly a bank-breaking expense.

The Square-adopting vendors we spoke with found it indispensable. It stands to reason that the ability to accept credit card payments should increase sales, if only because it accommodates more customers. The additional services offered by these platforms help sweeten the deal: NFC purchases, pre-ordering, inventory management — even payroll.

Perhaps more education and demonstration is in order?

The (in)convenience factor

Farmers markets simply don’t sell the range of products offered by grocery stores. In terms of produce, selection can also vary more than grocery stores, making it difficult to plan ahead. And with shorter hours that are often limited to just a few days, it’s not hard to see why they’re often more novelty than habit.

But what if it was easier to plan this into your schedule? Certainly CSAs and startups like GoodEggs aim to solve the convenience factor by removing the need to visit the market, but what could we do for those who enjoy the trip — but don’t make it a habit?

One established cue used by supermarkets is the weekly circular. These highlight the latest deals and pique interests with complementary recipes. While some vendors and markets publish teaser images to social media, perhaps a more regular digital publication is in order. So — dare we say it — would a farmers market circular help customers anticipate what’s in stock and plan their shopping accordingly?

Rather than one unified idea, our research revealed a variety of practical opportunities to improve the farmers market experience. Based on your own experiences, what could be changed about the farmers market? And how might technology help?