Filling market voids

(article from 1990’s Selling Outdoors)

Does your market have voids?

This is another way of asking if there are times during the year when an item is in season, but no one at your market is offering it. Some markets, especially new ones, often don’t recognize that “market voids” or “supply gaps” are one of the ways your customers are disappointed when they come to market.

A market void doesn’t refer to the time when a customer drops in the first week of June to ask if the corn is ready yet. Rather, “voids” refer to those items—usually popular ones asked for by shoppers—which aren’t available at market when asked for, but could be. And because season-aware customers are expecting them, they should be. Strawberries, peas, corn, blueberries, and eggs are commonly voids at market, but almost anything could be seen to be. It all depends upon your customer base and how complete a line of locally grown foods you want to supply to your customers.

Sometimes a smaller, lower-key market may not wish to deal with the issue, or don’t see it as a problem, since the members are selling what they brought pretty well already. This is a local market decision, of course.

If you wish to address the problem of market voids, one of the first things a market steering committee should do is to become aware over the season what their markets voids are and when and why they occur.

If items are simply late this year because of drought or cool weather, then the answer lies in better growing techniques and customer education. But if the market has no one attending with those items, then something should be done in order to show customers they can get what they are looking for at your market.

This is one of the ways in which improving the market as a whole leads to the betterment of the lot of each individual who is selling at market. Yet it is not always in the individual market member’s direct interest to notice and eliminate market voids. Many markets have come to realize that it is in each market members indirect interest to make the market as a whole as successful as possible.

Sometimes, such as when one grower is bringing in some—but not enough—peas or strawberries and is selling out quickly, that grower may not be comfortable with recruiting another grower who will be a competitor.

However, more customers telling their friends, “Yeah, they have that down at the farmers’ market” means more sales for everyone at market. When they tell their friends the opposite, this gives people one more reason not to shop at your market.

Here are some policies that markets have developed to deal with market voids. If you know of others, we’d love to hear about them.

Camden allows a member—after approval—to buy in an item to fill a void. If another member has the same item which they have grown, the first member may not offer for sale what they have bought for resale until the grower who grew the item sells out. Additionally, the bought-in item must be labeled as such.

The Orono Farmer’s Market discussed this idea at some length and rejected it in favor of remaining a “100% no-buy” market. Instead, Orono opted to do active recruiting of growers for recognized market voids before the market season begins. This is a preventative, rather than a curative solution.

Orono also has an interesting “Emergency Clause” to their No-Buy Rule for market members. Ordinarily, members are required to grow or produce 100% of what they offer for sale at market. The emergency clause, first adopted on a pro-tern basis late in 1995, and later adopted as a regular part of the No-Buy Rule, states that, “If a member is unable to make it to market, another member may sell the products of the absent member. This may happen only three times during a season and the identity of the absent member must be made clear to the customers.”

It should be noted that many market voids are highly seasonal items whose season comes at a time of low market-member attendance. Therefore, the problem of overcrowding with one more member is sometimes non-existent, even in markets with “no more room” for a new member. For example, a new strawberry grower will be long gone by the time the apple grower begins market. Similarly with that hanging basket greenhouse that closes up shop by late June.

Some markets even have established a “season membership” lasting just a few weeks, with lower market dues, specifically to attract highly seasonal items.

About Tom Roberts

When I started attending the Brewer Farmers’ Market back in August of 1983, my sole concern was being able to sell the produce my farm was growing at a good price. After attending market for a year or two, I began to realize that how the market was organized had a great impact on my sales. And how the market was organized also influenced how it made decisions about dues, new members, what could be sold at market, and how it promoted itself—and this, too, had an impact on my sales. So I got involved in the market’s steering committee and began to understand how various market members thought the market should operate. Some wanted a market czar, some wanted everyone to be allowed to do their own thing. But everyone seemed to agree that if the market as a whole did well, then so did they.