The Shō of Market

In many Japanese martial arts, there is a differentiation between the SHŌ (say ‘show’) of the art and the DŌ (say ‘dough’) of the art. Basically, the DŌ is the functional part of the art, how to make the movements and what they are useful for, both in terms of spiritual centering and self-defense. On the other hand, the SHŌ is the performance aspect of the art, the aspect that concentrates on how is looks to an observer, how nicely the movements are performed, etc. Crudely, we might think of the SHŌ as “showing” the art, and the DŌ as the “doing” of the art.

One has to have the DŌ of the market pretty well under control in order to focus on the SHŌ, or “show business part” of the market. But there should be no doubt about it. In any venture dealing with the public there is a component of the “show.” The show most marketers are familiar with borders on the DŌ, such as how to attractively arrange the produce to attract the eye and how to keep it that way during the hours of the market.

But being at market is also “show business,” pure and simple. Maybe you don’t like that part, or maybe you love it. Maybe you are good at the show, or maybe you are too self-conscious. But without a doubt, the market is a media—actually one of the best media. The look, the feel, and the experiences people remember when they recall the market will rank at least as highly in a market’s success as the quality of the food found there.

This is because going to the market is, for most customers, an extra thing to do, an out-of-the-way exercise. They do it because they want the quality produce, but they continue to do it (remember: repeat sales are the key to any market’s success!) because the experience was pleasant, fun, educational, something to be remembered with fondness. Something they like to do.

So how do you do the SHŌ? Well, remember that peripheral events are not key. Hired clowns, balloon giveaways, bands playing, and the like are not inherently OF the market. They are AROUND the market, they are frills apart from the core market experience. For many, they actually detract from the market experience.

The true “market SHŌ” must consist only of YOU and YOUR PRODUCE. Those are the only two props you are allowed, and customers make all their “Should I go to market today?” judgments primarily on remembrance of those two factors. Like with the stand-up comedian or vaudeville act, the sparseness of the context puts the focus on you.

YOUR PRODUCE must be of exceptional quality. You must learn to compost that which falls to supermarket quality. You must learn to paint with your produce like Van Gogh painted with oils. Compose your displays, never throw them together. Carrots, scallions, beets, radishes, and not carrots, radishes, beets and scallions. Why? Think of the colors and how they interact. Display tomatoes in blue containers and never red ones. Everything displays well against brown. Don’t use blue tarps (what happens to the color of your produce under a blue tarp?). Wash your produce before it gets displayed; don’t display soil. You should be able to discuss for five minutes why you have set out everything as you have each day. On overcast or rainy days make big exhibits of wilt-ables in full view up front, because today they won’t wilt. Pile carrots bunches and multicolored lettuces so high that passing cars will screech to a halt and pull in to buy. Build your shows with such an attitude, and your customers will be impressed. How do you know? Because they will tell you in so many words.

YOU are also a very important part of your display. Are you grim or unconcerned, wishing you could be somewhere else (and showing it)? Is it cold or rainy and you are uncomfortable? Is it 90 degrees in the shade and keeping your produce looking good is a constant juggle? Do you think a customer wants to know all about it? Probably not. Occasionally a customer wants to talk shop with you, but this is the exception. Mostly they want to know how you can help them, and they have already gone out of their way to arrive at your stand, so it is time for the show to begin!

Return the favor of their coming here with courtesy and humor, regardless of how you feel inside. They don’t know they are the fiftieth one today to ask for the corn you don’t have. So hold up a cuke and say “yes, right here! Oh, isn’t this corn???” Or pretend to be confused as though you never heard of such a thing as “corn.” Or explain compassionately you have no corn, and the next corn will be in next August. “You mean next year?” “Yes! So mark your calendar!” Use your judgment as to which approach this customer will like best. (Sometimes you will be wrong, but getting around their annoyance at your antics will be your next on-the-job training.) Snow Peas—do you know why they are called Snow Peas? ‘Cause “there’s no peas in ‘em!” A customer walks up with several bunches of beets. You ask them, “Two Beets or Not Two Beets, that is the question!” When they tell you with a smile just how many bunches they have, you comment that you are glad you now know the answer to that age-old question. If they approach with a lettuce a cuke and a tomato, tell them you can see a salad in their future. You soon learn to eliminate those remarks you might make that could be considered smart-alecky or rude, and to tailor your remarks to the mood of the customer. Know when to be serious and know when to be funny. Develop the instinct for it.

Your involvement in the transaction should also show that you consider them a person; that you are there to solve their problem of not having the great garden that you do. Research new ways of using produce—tempura rutabaga slices, use napa instead of iceberg in a salad or sandwich, sprinkle cut up snow peas in a salad. A simple cheery “Good Morning!” to every customer is something else they can’t get at the supermarket. Besides making them feel welcome, it also acts to ‘break the ice’ should they wish to ask a question about the produce, but it does not solicit a commitment from them the way that the phrase “Can I help you? does.

“Do you take checks?” a timid customer may ask. “Only if they are good” is my smiling reply. And if they offer their license when they hand over the check, I remark that they will need that license to drive home, so I don’t need it. “Yes, we take cash, checks, food stamps and WIC checks, but we don’t take American Express!” In other words, take the tension out of the transaction. Show the customers that you are their friend, that you want to help them, and you would like to make this transaction as much fun as possible. Tell the kids “Don’t forget to bring mom (or dad) back for more carrots!” Allow, even encourage sampling of your produce. In short, by putting on an entertaining show for them, you “show” them you are glad they are there. This is a subtle and indirect message, but one that endears your customers to you. And that spells repeat business.

Over time you will build up a library of your own comments, jokes, and ways of making the buying transaction pleasant for your customers that is unlike anyone else’s. Of course listening to the ways others handle their customers and the quips they make are fertile ground for your own ideas. And don’t just look at your market, but notice also when you are the customer how you are made to feel good about being there. (Or not! Learn from other retailers bad examples, too.) For example I absolutely hate being made to wait in line at a checkout when some personal conversation is being made at the register. Avoiding doing this at my stand is often one of my biggest challenges.)

All of this is entirely apart and separate from how you are feeling that day. It is a measure of your professionalism how well you can pull this off each and every day, day after day. It is your “green grocer duty” to put the customer first, not to wear your cares on your sleeve. And, yes, it is one of the parts of the job that is emotionally draining. Show business is not easy, even if it is fun at times. It is acting because it is not simply “being yourself.” You are filtering and designing your behavior for a purpose. You play the idiot, the scholar, the clown, the wit, and of course, the farmer.

It certainly means a shifting of gears from pulling weeds, trellising tomatoes, and washing carrots. The ability to center your thoughts and activity on customers for the purpose of selling your produce will help you recognize and honor the place that ordinary people play in your activity of growing food.

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.