Why it is important to read your customers

so they’ll enjoy their shopping experience and want to come back.

Tom RobertsWhy do some market members do very well on days when others seem to do poorly? Most likely the reason is that those who are doing well are those who are paying proper attention to the passing shoppers.

It is vital to remember that a farmers’ market is not all about the sales transactions, that markets are not entirely about the exchange of money for goods. Sales may be the primary reason most of us attend the market, but we must be careful not to reduce the shopper’s experience (or yours!) to a purely economic one. Life is about more than economics, so always reflect this in your approach to shoppers.

Whenever a shopper is about to visit your market stand, it can be greatly to your advantage to study them as they approach in order to learn what you can about them which will enable you to initiate contact in the most appropriate manner.


  • Do they look to be in a hurry, or are they casually shopping and enjoying the experience?
  • Is the shopper alone, or are they with a spouse, a friend or with one or more children?
  • Do you recognize them as a regular, or do they seem to be a new shopper at the market?
  • Does it look like they are comparison shopping, or is it clear they know what they came for?
  • Are they in a good mood, or have they apparently had a bad day?

Each one or combination of these and other factors should be taken into account before your initial contact with them happens. This helps you to adjust your opening greeting and prevents you from getting off on the wrong foot with a potential customer. Of course you can instantly adjust your approach as soon as a conversation begins and you start to know more about their expectations for today’s market experience. Each shopper must be treated individually rather than as a “generic shopper.”

The same appropriate friendliness shown toward a regular returning customer may be viewed by a first-time shopper as being too forward. Explaining what’s just come into season or what’s on sale may irritate someone who is in a hurry and already knows what they want. Long descriptions of your products and recipes may be inappropriate for someone with antsy children in tow.

Greet an approaching shopper with a “good morning” to show that you are glad they stopped at your stand even if they are just checking it out. This is a neutral yet welcoming phrase. Reading a book, talking on the phone, playing games on your iPad and such activities are the surest ways to show shoppers you are not interested in them, so they will not be interested in you or your wares. Always be at your stand, or keep a constant eye on it if you’re off visiting another stand. If you go for a bathroom break, be sure to let another vendor know so they can tell shoppers that you’ll be right back.

Sometimes a simple generic “Howdy!” or “Good Morning!” is the most appropriate (and safe) way greet a shopper. Other times, when you notice them reviewing your offerings, such a phrase as “What’s for dinner?” or “If I only had a bag…” works well to set a friendly tone to the interaction, especially if it is said as you are offering them a bag. Likewise a phrase such as “We grew all this on our five acres of gardens right here in Pittsfield” can be a good opener for a shopper new to the market and who has already entered your stand’s area. Not all shoppers understand that all or most of what you are selling is stuff you have grown or made yourself, that you are not simply retailing items produced by others.

It is important that you acknowledge in a friendly manner a shopper’s presence as they approach. Once they are looking over your wares, other types of phrases come into play. Be creative and remember and repeat the ones that work best for you. A phrase that has worked well for me for years is “Don’t be shy, just grab a bag and fill it up!” Although this seems like it borders on the “hard sell,” in fact it lets shoppers know that self-service is appropriate and in the vast majority of instances it is received with humor as was intended.

An opening phrase I never use is “Can I help you?” If you think about it, this is a fairly confrontational phrase; it can sound like “What are you doing here?” and the shopper is pushed into a position of deciding right then and there whether to shop with you because you are presenting them with an either-or decision at a moment of your choosing, not of theirs. Often they will respond with “No thanks, I’m just looking.” and in many cases you’ve just lost a sale. While I’m on it, whenever I get the “just looking” phrase from someone, I realize this is the shopper saying they are not ready to make a buying decision just yet, so I often respond with “That’s OK, we’re not like the movies, we don’t charge for looking!” which usually lightens the mood.

Once a shopper is actually at your stand, it is important not to hover. Give them the space they need to make their buying decisions. Go about your business of arranging your signs, restocking or watering your produce, but be ready at a moment’s notice to pay them the full attention they deserve once they are ready to buy or ask a question.

Private conversations with other market members must be put on immediate hold whenever a shopper approaches. The conversation can easily continue once the shopper is gone, but a shopper should never be made to feel they are bothering you by shopping there. It is rude and bad for business to continue a conversation when a shopper is at your stand; you want to make it as easy as possible for the shopper to gain your attention without feeling they have to interrupt you. An exception, of course, is when, while talking to a customer, another shopper becomes interested in the conversation. But if you are talking to one customer, and another seems ready to check out, then a quick “Let me take care of this person, and I’ll be right back,” is a smooth way to move away from a conversation temporarily.

Humor, education, fellowship. These are the three things that you can offer at the market to make the shopper’s market experience unique. Notice that none of them really has much to do directly with sales. Indirectly, however, these are at the core of making sales. People will buy from people they like and they will buy when the shopping experience is a pleasure they look forward to because they get so much more out of it than the food they bring home.

Give this a try: notice on your next market day that the folks who usually don’t do well and complain that it’s a slow day when others are making many sales are usually the same folks who ignore most or all of these points.

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.