As I write this, I can see beautiful rays of sun shine down on Merchant Advance HQ in Vancouver. (At last!) Along with the proliferation of people going out for runs and abandoning their jackets, there’s one other sure sign of the turning seasons: farmers’ markets – much like the one I walked through just yesterday in the streets of Yaletown – begin to set up their wares in cities all over Canada. On spring and summer days, these installations form a recurring nexus of public activity that is almost entirely driven by small business participation.
Farmers’ markets enable farmers, craftspeople, and other small businesspeople to bypass wholesalers with direct sales to consumers, creating shorter local value chains and strengthening the sustainability of local economies, as well as affecting output in other industries and sectors such as transportation and manufacturing.
An interesting analogy or comparison could be made between farmers’ markets and the concept of “incubators” that will likely be familiar to anyone conversant in the digital startup marketplace: both are arenas in which businesses can take advantage of shared resources, access to customers, and the exposure needed to find footing in a challenging market area. They offer a testing ground for new ideas, sales approaches and products, as well as a direct opportunity to network and experience customer feedback with an appreciably large sample size. Social networks, pre-social-networks. A shift back to realspace and away from digital space, if for a moment.
On the other side of the coin, we see these venues becoming increasingly friendly with modern commercial trends, especially payment technologies. The cashbox is still present, but more and more merchants are adopting credit and debit-based processing. Small-footprint solutions like Square are becoming more common as consumers rely more on card-based transactions even for jars of pickles or loaves of bread. Exposure to new customers may provide valuable opportunities for data-gathering, creation of email marketing lists, and other insights proven to be valuable in the digital age.
Farmers’ markets are not only venues for one-time customer interaction. In a 2013 study by Dr. David Connell at the University of Northern British Columbia that polled 33 farmers’ markets in British Columbia, it was found that half of market visitors shop two to three times a month. With a loyal customer base, farmers and vendors can increase their business stability. This stability does not come at the expense of exposure to new customers: the study showed that first-time shoppers made up twenty percent of the consumers polled.