FEATURES


How to Keep Your Farmstand Customers Coming Back for More

By Marcia Passos Duffy


If you sell tomatoes, you may want to have a sign that states that these fresh, local tomatoes will work great in a salsa or other dish. You may also want to include the vitamin and mineral content of the tomatoes.

If you sell tomatoes, you may want to have a sign that states that these fresh, local tomatoes will work great in a salsa or other dish. You may also want to include the vitamin and mineral content of the tomatoes.
Photo by clarita/morguefile.com.

The dilemma for farmstands is no different from any other business: How do you get repeat customers?

After all, it's easier, and more cost-effective, to keep customers coming back than it is to lure new customers in. Of course, you always want to keep new customers streaming into your farmstand, but once you get them there, how do you keep them coming back for more?

According to agriculture marketing experts, it all comes down to customer service. The better you cater to your customers and make them feel like they are special, the more likely they are to return.

"People have unlimited choices on where to buy food, so shopping at a farmstand is more about the shopping experience," says John Berry, an agricultural marketing educator at Penn State Cooperative Extension.

If the experience is bad, or even mediocre, your business will suffer. Berry recounts one bad experience he had at a farmstand that farm managers can learn from: "It was almost like I was intentionally ignored and they didn't want to deal with me ... All my questions were answered with a 'yes,' 'no' or 'tomorrow.' It could have just been a bad day, but you can be sure I won't be back."

Take advantage of social media. It allows you to continue a dialogue with customers
after they leave the farmstand, so you can let them know what is fresh, what is being
picked, or what produce is on sale.

Take advantage of social media. It allows you to continue a dialogue with customers after they leave the farmstand, so you can let them know what is fresh, what is being picked, or what produce is on sale.
Photo by xenia/morguefile.com.

Know your customers and treat them well

Farmstand owners need to make sure that they and everyone who works for them know how to greet and treat customers. "You have to delight me every time I see you," says Berry.

One way to do this is to provide your employees with a script. "Not that they have to mimic the script word for word like a parrot, but you must train your employees how you want them to acknowledge and greet your customers," he states.

It is also important to understand your demographics, Berry notes. "Most farmers don't have any idea who their customers are," he says.

While you may not be able to afford hiring a market research company, there is an easy and inexpensive way to do some of this research on your own. Your first stop is the local public library: Peruse the glossy food magazines; read what consumers are cooking today; take notes.

"Farmers need to keep abreast on popular food trends and take cues from these magazines ... and cooking shows too," says Berry.

More Tips from the Marketing Experts

1. Use signage responsibly. Use large "Open" signs with bold letters. Take the "Open" sign down when you are closed.

2. Promote your unique selling proposition (USP). Are you known for the best apple pies? Sweetest corn in the county? "You need something to hang your hat on, something that the community values," says Berry. "That goes a long way to getting known and gaining credibility."

3. Highlight food safety. One of the main attractions of a farmstand is that consumers associate local farms with food safety. "With so much about E. coli and salmonella in the mainstream food system, use that to your advantage," says Berry.

4. Play up the "mystique" of farming. Large grocery stores are copying the farmers' market or farmstand look, because consumers want to feel like they are buying farm-fresh food. "There's a mystique to farming in today's world. It is ours, let's work that for all it's worth," says Berry. You could have your staff wear straw hats and overalls, but if you don't want to go that far, have photos or videos of your actual field workers on display at your stand.

5. Dress for success. Make sure that your farmstand is clean and neat-that includes your employees. Farmstand workers should be well-groomed and identifiable with a name tag or T-shirt with the farm's logo. "While customers love being in touch with the farm, they expect a certain level of cleanliness and hygiene," says Keyser.

6. Offer samples-it stimulates sales. "Let your customers taste what you are offering and get feedback from them," says Keyser. "Your customers can provide some good marketing information."

7. Provide guidelines for using your produce. If you are introducing a new fruit or vegetable, give guidelines on how to wash and store it and five ways to use it (for example, on cereal, pureed for a salad dressing, etc.). You can also direct them to an online link for recipes from a notable recipe source or one of your own. However, Keyser cautions, "Don't throw out a random recipe, but one that you use and have tested yourself. It is more personal if you give a family recipe and tell the story."

8. View other farms as collaborators, not competitors. Talk with your neighboring farmstands and see what is working for them, and be prepared to share your own successes, suggests Keyser.

Through this research, get ideas on how to offer your customers more than the raw materials for a meal.

"More people are interested in eating global foods," says Berry. So if you sell tomatoes, you may want to have a sign that states that these fresh, local tomatoes will work great in a salsa or other dish. You may also want to include the vitamin and mineral content of the tomatoes. "Your research will show you that this is what customers are looking for and expect," Berry adds.

He also suggests doing some market research at a nearby grocery store. "Watch people and what they are buying. Study the signs and what price range attracts the most activity," he says.

Another way to understand your demographic is to put yourself in your customers' shoes. For example, consider busy families that are pressed for time: "What bothers me most about farmstands is that they are typically open from nine to five," says Berry. "Most households today have two working adults, and guess when they are working? How are they going to get to your farmstand?"

Promote your unique selling position. Do you have the best berries around?
Let your customers know that.

Promote your unique selling position. Do you have the best berries around? Let your customers know that.
Photo by Scott Bauer, courtesy of USDA-ARS.

Berry says that while some farmers object to working on Sundays, sometimes due to religious convictions, they need to rethink this. "Research shows that Sunday is the biggest shopping day," he notes.

Connect with customers online and off

Along with knowing your customers, you also need a way to follow up to keep them coming back, says Angela Keyser, owner of AK Communications, a Nevada-based marketing, public relations, advertising and social media firm that specializes in agriculture.

"Always guide customers to sign up for an e-newsletter or 'like' your Facebook page," says Keyser. This allows you to continue the dialogue after they leave the farmstand, so you can let them know what is fresh, what is being picked, or what produce is on sale.

Farmers should also seek opportunities to connect with the community through events. The venues for this are endless, from helping with school projects to hosting seed sharing parties or canning workshops.

"The bottom line is that farmers need to connect with customers on a number of different levels: face-to-face at the farmstand, through an e-newsletter or Facebook, and in a helping capacity, such as hosting a workshop," says Keyser.

All this "connecting" leads to long-term relationships, which leads to loyal customers who will keep coming back to your farmstand.

"Your customers will become almost like friends, instead of a blank face," says Keyser. "Customers want to know the face behind the product, and farmers have a unique opportunity to provide that."

Facebook is an ideal opportunity to let your
customers take a peek at what goes on behind the
scenes at your farm. Post pictures and videos of
you and your workers out in the field.

Facebook is an ideal opportunity to let your customers take a peek at what goes on behind the scenes at your farm. Post pictures and videos of you and your workers out in the field.
Photo by taliesin/morguefile.com.

Granted, you can't always have a great conversation with each and every customer who comes through the door. That is where signage about your farm's history, a scrapbook, video or other storytelling device at your farmstand can work wonders.

Facebook is an ideal opportunity to let your customers take a peek at what goes on behind the scenes at your farm. While you may think your workday is ordinary, many of your customers think farming is a fascinating, and even exotic, lifestyle.

"So many people are looking to get back in touch with a farm ... and you can provide that for them," says Keyser. Post pictures of your new litter of pigs, the harvest, a new calf, a shiny new piece of equipment, or close-ups of fruits and vegetables.

Share photos to help customers feel
connected to your farm.

Share photos to help customers feel connected to your farm.
Photo by SerendipityMuse/morguefile.com.

And don't worry about the photos or videos you post being too "perfect," she adds. "That's what people love about social media ... that it's not perfect, and there is a more personal connection," she says.

Go ahead and tweet or post on Facebook that video of you plowing the field or picking the latest tomato crop. "Believe me, your customers will love it," says Keyser.

The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H.