Saturday, September 28, 2013

Market Research

About 8 years ago, I started an experiment at my Farmer's Market booth. When I settled on my current popular salad green/herb display--"mix 'n' match, $10/lb., as little or as much as you want, take what you like and leave the rest"--I soon realized that often folks just wanted a few herbs, which didn't even register on the scale. So I started the "$1.00 for a small bag, whatever herbs you want to put in it."

It's been very popular, and enlightening as well. People love not having to buy more than they will use, and being able to get just the fresh herbs they need for the recipe du jour. They love not being forced to waste food. Often they are happier with one fragrant sprig than they would be with a larger package, because they don't want to waste.

There are also always a few who make their pesto (because this usually happens during basil season) in the small bag, cramming in the tender herbs until the juices run. I don't weigh the bags, but I'm sure I've seen $3 worth (by weight) of herbs in a $1 bag.

And then there are the "regulars" who put twice their usual amount of herbs in the bag, and give me $2, even though they are still only getting a few snippets of this and that. Even though I still smile and say, "That'll be $1." They know what it's worth to them. It's twice their usual.

From time to time, someone new to my booth comments on my little experiment. "Don't people take advantage of that?" No, not really. For every pesto-maker, there are many sprig-takers. It all averages out...and overall, I make more money on the herbs this way that if I sold them by weight or by pre-measured bunches.

It's a good deal for everyone...people get what they want, they essentially choose their price, they take only what they can use, and I don't have to pre-weigh/pre-bag/label/etc.

Green onions are another long-time experiment. It used to be, there just wasn't much demand for them. I bunched them in rubber bands like the store, and then took them home and took off the rubber bands to throw them in the compost (before Just Food). Eventually I got frustrated with the wasted effort and just laid them on the table in loose bunches. Figuring out how big to make bunches of anything can be a pain in the neck when the items vary in size both within the day's offering and from week to week. Every bunch required at least some small mental activity to decide what was in that particular bunch.

One day I didn't separate them into bunches. "You get to pick your own bunch," I told the customers. "How big is a bunch?"they asked. "You know how big a bunch of green onions in the store," I replied. "No, I don't." "Yes, you do" I would laugh and smile. And timidly, they would start picking up onions, looking at me for cues after the first few. "How many is in a bunch?" they would ask, hoping I would relent and spare them the responsibility. "It depends on what size they are. You might want all big ones, all small ones or some of each." I would smile and repeat myself. "You know how big a bunch of green onions is." And by golly, they would almost always pick out exactly a bunch of green onions.

This was, in part, about getting customers involved in the process of vegetables, the post-harvest handling that for conventional grocery-store veggies is often done by migrant workers living and working in grueling conditions. It was also about building self-confidence, about showing people they know something that they didn't think they knew.

Sometimes people needed a little more guidance. "It's enough that you feel like you're getting a good deal, and not so much that you feel like you're cheating me," I would tell the still-skeptical.

There are, of course, outliers in the range of green-onion-purchasers. These fall into a couple categories. One is people who don't normally shop who have been sent to Farmer's Market with lists. It's pretty easy to tell from the deer-in-the-headlights look that they truly do not know how big a bunch of green onions is. They aren't even quite sure if they know what green onions are. I demonstrate, teaching them gently for next time. Another is people from other cultures where informal direct sales venues like our Farmer's Market are common, and haggling over prices is the norm. They are inclined to make somewhat larger bunches, and then keep adding to them. I don't argue. It's just a few onions.

As with the $1 herb bags, there are also those who won't use a whole bunch. So I sell half bunches for half price. But sometimes, people don't even want half a bunch. They hold up one or two onions. "Whatever it's worth to you," I say. Often they give me the half-bunch price. It's worth it to them to not have to waste the rest of the half-bunch. And it's worth it to have the one green onion.

This year, for the first time, I planted a row of okra. For some yet-undiagnosed reason, the plants are suddenly dying, one by one. Harvest is slim, but more than I need for home use. So I take a small bag to market each week.

Today, a customer picked out the choicest small ones that she wanted. "How much?" "What's it worth to you?" I asked. "How about a dollar?" "That's fine." She paid and went away happy. Not long after, another customer looked at the remaining okra, about the same amount but coarser pods. "How much?" "What's it worth to you?" "How about a dollar?" "OK" The  customer handed me a dollar...and then handed me another one. "No, two dollars!" And walked away happy.

A little later, a customer and I discussed a small purchase while I was packing up. "A dollar or whatever," I said. She handed me a $5 bill. I went to make change. "No, keep it," she said.

A few weeks ago, a FaceBook (and long-time face-to-face) friend posted an angry comment about the high price of fresh food. She took stores to task for overcharging consumers...but also held Farmer's Market vendors accountable for charging high prices. When I responded with comments about small farmers' costs of production, and how artificially low our US food prices really are, she got angry with me. It was sad, because I'd long thought of this person as a friend and ally, and someone who (as a high-end food service professional) truly values food.

I challenged myself to reflect on whether there might be some truth to her accusation. I survey prices from other vendors, from the stores, and consider my production costs and quality differences when I price my produce. Are my prices were ridiculously high? Am I helping fuel inflation?

My market research says that for many people, my prices are just fine. And left to their own devices, my customers often would pay more than my set price.

In my friend's defense, we're both old enough to remember when gas was $.25/gallon and tomatoes were $.25/lb. (If you stop and think about it, the price of high-quality tomatoes in the store is often right about the same as a gallon of gas. Go figure. I'll take the tomato any day!) So yes, there has been a lot of inflation as the decades add up. But in the case of Farmer's Market prices, it seems to be a mutually agreeable situation.

1 comment:

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