Building loyalty: Testing the efficacy of farmers market loyalty programs to engage the community and enhance sales

Final report for ONE16-255

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2016: $14,999.00
Projected End Date: 04/15/2017
Grant Recipient: Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA)
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Margaret Christie
Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA)
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Project Information

Summary:

Customer traffic is essential to farmers’ market success. Markets with robust sales provide adequate return to vendors, offer a wide array of products, and create a vibrant community gathering place. Successful markets employ multiple strategies to attract and retain a strong customer base.

After considerable growth, both the number of farmers’ markets and the amount of direct sales have declined in western Massachusetts. Markets face growing competition for busy customers, who can access locally grown food in a growing number of retail outlets, and who also may be purchasing food on-line and through big box stores. In response, farmers’ markets and market vendors need effective methods of increasing customer traffic and sales.

Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) tested several “loyalty tools” or methods of rewarding frequent or high-spending customers in partnership with 21 markets in western Massachusetts and used surveys and focus groups to evaluate their impact and ease-of-use. We looked at what were markets willing and able to implement as well as how impactful those tools were in building customer loyalty. The most successful tool we tested was reward or “punch” cards for frequent visitors.  This tool is simple and effective: 94% of markets who tested these cards have committed to using them a second season and customers were familiar with the concept and happy to use them. Adding special events to the market’s schedule was popular with customers, but difficult for many understaffed markets to achieve. Using tablets or smartphones to improve customer communication, including in-market use of social media, was an effective way to reach customers but challenging for some market managers to implement; training and familiarity can help market managers gain skills with these communications methods. Market managers were reluctant to try using texting apps that send bulk market reminders, but we feel that this technique has promise. “Friend of the Market” buttons were not a popular choice with market managers, and those that did use them didn’t see much impact.

Introduction:

After decades of growth, “sales of local food at U.S. farmers’ markets are slowing.” A January 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA ERS, Trends in U.S. Local and Regional Food Systems), for example, showed that while more farmers are selling directly to consumers, “local food sales at farmers markets [has] lost some momentum” (NPR 2/15). In Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire Counties of Massachusetts, the number of farmers’ markets serving 698,000 residents quadrupled from 2002 to a peak of 45 markets in 2012, including several winter and year-round markets, but decreased for three consecutive years to just 32 markets in 2015. According to NASS data for these three counties, the average direct sales per farm decreased 6% from 2007 and 2012, not counting inflation loss. Markets continue to tell us that they struggle to maintain their customer base and to gain new customers and revenue for their vendors. It appears we have reached, as the USDA study stated “a plateau in consumer demand for local food” through direct market outlets.

Although growth in the number of farmers’ markets, CSAs, and farm stands in our region has outstripped current consumer demand, there is significant additional potential demand. Many surrounding states have a much higher per capita number of direct market outlets (Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index, 2017). One indicator of the potential for growth in direct sales in our region is the number of shoppers who shop occasionally, but not frequently, at farm direct market outlets. Polling conducted by CISA in Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden County in 2016 indicated that 74% of the public buy at least some of their food at local farm stands or farmers’ markets. However, while 74% of respondents shop at a supermarket or grocery store more than once a week, only 5.7% shop at roadside stands and 2.2% at farmers’ markets on a weekly basis.

Increasing consumer demand for local food at farmers’ markets (and in some places even maintaining demand) may now require additional marketing effort. Best practices in marketing suggest that one of the most cost-effective strategies for increasing demand is to encourage existing customers to buy more, buy more frequently, or become ambassadors for your businesses, thus attracting additional customers (Matt LeReux, presentation 3/15). In 2015, CISA completed research on loyalty programs currently being offered by farmers’ markets. We found that there were very few markets that offer loyalty programs and there were no best practices or guidelines to help markets in assessing loyalty program costs or rewards.

Farmers’ markets and farmer vendors are interested in finding cost-effective and easy-to-implement strategies to increase market sales. Farmers’ markets are an important component of many farmers’ income streams and they serve as vital community spaces. Increasing their base of loyal shoppers will bring multiple benefits to farm businesses, communities, and the local economy. While loyalty tools alone will not create robust customer traffic for all farmers’ markets, use of some of the tools studied here offers real value to market managers and vendors.

Project Objectives:

Our primary project objective was to evaluate the success of five loyalty tools at 10 markets in terms of customer satisfaction, vendor satisfaction, and market impact.  In the end, 21 markets participated in the project testing one or more loyalty tool. Our second objective was to write and disseminate findings so that markets across the country can evaluate and implement appropriate customer loyalty tools on their own.

Cooperators

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  • Oona Coy

Research

Materials and methods:

Methods

Objective 1:  Evaluate the success of five loyalty tools at 10 markets in terms of customer satisfaction, vendor satisfaction, and market impact.

Activity 1: Work with each market to understand and choose loyalty tools to test.

We offered five loyalty tool options to all of the farmers’ markets in our region (Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin Counties, Massachusetts). Loyalty tools were the following:

  1. Rewards card/punch card for frequent shoppers. This card is similar to the “buy ten, get one free” cards offered by many merchants. Each time shoppers come to the market, they get their card punched at the market manager’s booth. Most markets chose to enter customers in a drawing for a prize after they had visited the market six times. Prizes could be an item donated by vendors, like a pint of syrup or a bag of apples, or market tokens or tshirts. Some markets gave all customers who filled a card a small prize. An example punch card is attached.
  2. “Friend of the Market” buttons. Modeled on a button used at the Coventry Regional Farmers’ Market in Coventry, Connecticut.  Markets could give away buttons or charge a small fee to be used to support the market. Customers wearing the buttons were rewarded with small surprise giveaways from vendors—a cucumber or carrot added to whatever they had purchased, for example.
  3. An iPad to collect shoppers’ contact information, take photographs, and offer real-time social media contact with customers. CISA purchased iPads and data plans in order to allow markets to test them for customer communication, including newsletters, texts, Facebook or Instagram posts. 
  4. Texting app for customer communications. CISA paid the cost of using the app for the 2016 market season.
  5. Customer benefit activities, such as Kid’s Days, sampling, and food preparation demonstrations. CISA helped markets implement special activities in order to enhance the market experience for customers. Note that these customer benefit activities were not included in our original proposal and were made possible in part by interns provided by Greenfield Community College through the Rural Community College Alliance.

 Activity 2: Support implementation, including providing guidance on vendor training, customer outreach, and data collection, in exchange for data tracking.

CISA staff helped market managers understand and promote the loyalty tools we offered. We made suggestions about options for prizes for a reward basket for frequent shoppers and contributed items for those baskets, such as CISA t-shirts or water bottles or locally-grown specialty products. We set up the iPads to gather customer contact information and trained market managers in how to use them.  We created a handout about using a texting app to remind customers about the farmers’ market, including information about legal requirements related to opting in to receive texts and suggestions for good texting protocol (attached). We made signs for markets promoting the tools they were using, such as punch cards and “Friend of the Market” buttons (sample attached).

Specific steps and timing are as follows:

  1. Finalize market daily tracking forms and create draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOUs) for markets that detail market expectations for data tracking and CISA’s support (CISA staff, evaluator, farmer & market advisors, March 2016; October 2016).
  2. Meet with markets to finalize participation and use of loyalty tools, sign MOUs (CISA staff and markets and in some instances market boards, March 2016 and October 2016).
  3. Train markets in tracking tools and implementing loyalty tools (CISA staff, markets, vendors, April 2016 and October 2016).
  4. Implement market loyalty programs (CISA staff and markets, April 2016– April, 2017).

CISA staff and interns also supported activities and events at farmers’ markets, including food sampling and preparation demonstrations, Kid’s Day and end-of-season activities. We contacted markets and asked them how we could help them add events and activities that would enhance the market for customers. In some cases, these were very simple actions, such as reaching out to local non-profits to invite them to table at the market. In other cases, markets wanted support in implementing somewhat more elaborate events, such as Kid’s Days, a potato salad contest, and a Chef Cook Off using ingredients available at the market.

Farmers’ markets are usually understaffed. By helping markets plan special events, we hoped to walk market managers through the process of planning an event and to demonstrate that fairly simple events can have an impact on customer enthusiasm.

The most common activities that we provided in partnership with markets were Kid’s Days and food sampling/demonstrations. Kid’s Day events included special activities such as face painting, storytelling, acrobats, and scavenger hunts. Food preparation demonstrations allowed market customers to sample simple vegetable and fruit dishes, such as quick-fermented kimchis and salads, and provided recipes and instructions.

Activity 3: Help markets collect information about customer traffic, distance travelled to market, and customer requests. Evaluate ease-of-use and effectiveness of loyalty tools.

We used a variety of methods to assess the ease-of-use and effectiveness of the loyalty tools: customer dot surveys (11 markets) and focus groups (2),  market manager surveys (13) and  vendor surveys (57), and anecdotal reports from market managers.

Dot surveys are an assessment tool often used by farmers markets. Questions are posted on easels, and customers are asked to “do the dots” and given sticky colored dots with which they can indicate their answers. Survey responses are public, which may influence answers, but the friendly and informal nature of these surveys may make it possible to get more customers to participate.

We worked with each market to develop questions that met their needs, and used the dot surveys to assess things like how far customers had traveled to the market, how often they visited, how much money they spent, and what suggestions they had for improving the market as well as to gain feedback on loyalty tools.

Two focus groups were planned and implemented by the project evaluator, Catherine Sands of Fertile Ground, in cooperation with CISA staff and partners, including Liz Wills-O’Gilvie of the Springfield Food Policy Council and Nuestras Raíces, a community gardening and farm incubator program in Holyoke, Massachusetts. CISA staff and the project evaluator conducted two focus groups with farmers’ market customers, one in the northern, more rural part of our region and one in the southern, urban part of the region. In addition to discussing the loyalty tools, focus group participants provided feedback on why they attend farmers’ markets, barriers to attendance, and suggestions for market improvement.

Eight people attended the focus group held at CISA’s office in rural Franklin County. Participants included parents, SNAP recipients, a formerly-homeless advocate for the homeless, volunteer organizers, social workers, and cooking enthusiasts. Eleven participants attended a Hampden County focus group at Nuestras Raíces in urban Holyoke. They were mothers, grandmothers, community gardeners, and volunteer participants and board members of partner organizations, including the Springfield Food Policy Council, Gardening the Community, and Nuestras Raíces. Feedback on loyalty tools gained through the focus groups is summarized in sections on specific loyalty tools below.

We used surveys of market managers and vendors to gain their feedback on the ease-of-use and effectiveness of the loyalty tools.  13 market managers and 57 vendors responded to the surveys. In addition, we had frequent contact with market managers throughout the season to gain anecdotal information about their experience implementing the loyalty tools.

Specific steps and timing are as follows:

  1. Finalize dot surveys (CISA staff, evaluator, farmer & market advisors, July, 2016).
  2. Run dot surveys at markets (CISA staff, August – January, 2017)
  3. Collect market daily tracking sheets (CISA staff, markets, August, 2016-April 2017).
  4. Finalize end of season evaluation tools: vendor and market manager survey and customer focus groups (CISA staff, evaluator, farmer & market advisors, September 2016).
  5. Collect end of season surveys and market daily tracking sheets (CISA Staff, October – November, 2016 and April 2017).
  6. Conduct focus groups of farmers’ market participants (Evaluator, CISA Staff, April 2017).
  7. Analyze data and draft findings (CISA staff and evaluator, February-April 2017).
  8. Share preliminary findings with participating markets individually (CISA staff, markets, March-April 2017).

Objective 2: Write and disseminate findings so that markets across the country can evaluate and implement appropriate customer loyalty tools on their own.

We created a one-page fact sheet that introduces each loyalty tool activity, summarizes response from market managers, vendors, and customers, and provides recommendations for ease-of-use and maximum impact. We have disseminated the fact sheet to markets in our region and across the Commonwealth, to service providers, to farmers’ market networks such as Wholesome Wave’s National Nutrition Incentives Network and Mass Farmers’ Markets, and through listservs such as Comfood and NEFOOD.

Specific steps and timing are as follows:

  1. Finalize written report, executive summary, and one-page summary (CISA staff, evaluator, farmer & market advisors, April 2017).
  2. Disseminate findings (CISA staff, April 2017 and ongoing).
Research results and discussion:

The “I Come Here Every Week” handout summarizes feedback on the loyalty tools and our recommendations, based on input from market managers, farmer vendors, and customers. The text of that report is included below. Overall, customers were enthusiastic about loyalty tools. In our survey, all of the market managers reported that the loyalty tool program was beneficial to their market. Managers believe the cards increased customer satisfaction and the number of customers at the market.

Market interest in the loyalty tools we offered was quite uneven. Twenty-one markets used loyalty tools in the summer/winter2016/2017 season. A few additional markets used iPads loaned by CISA in the winters of 2015-2016 (2 markets) and 2016-17 (3 markets). The breakdown of implementation of different tools was as follows:

  • Sixteen markets tested punch cards.
  • Fifteen markets offered extra activities, such as Kid’s Days or food sampling/preparation demos provided by CISA.
  • Four markets used buttons.
  • Two markets had used texting communication in the past and was interested in testing CISA’s texting app, but in the end they did not.
  • Four markets tried iPads.

Market managers’ decisions about participation were based on their assessment of the amount of work involved, their capacity to accomplish that work, and the likely effectiveness of the tool.

The dot surveys indicated that many customers did not know about the loyalty tools activities, despite signs and manager outreach. In addition, we learned that most customers participate in order to support local farms and markets, not primarily in order to gain incentives. However, some customers wished rewards were more frequent.

Focus group participants provided useful specific tips about which loyalty tool activities were most valuable to them, and about ways to improve the programs. In addition, the focus groups were a valuable source of information about other topics related to building the base of farmers’ market customers, such as the importance of introducing new customers to the market in a way that is welcoming to people from different cultures and communities and the need for specific information about storing and using fresh produce.

Vendors of markets responded positively about the punch cards being well received by customers with the most common struggle being that the customer forgot to bring their card to market.

HANDOUT TEXT:

“I Come Here Every Week”:

Tools for Building Customer Loyalty at Farmers’ Markets

Customer traffic is essential to farmers’ market success. Markets with robust sales provide adequate return to vendors, offer a wide array of products, and create a vibrant community gathering place. Markets face growing competition for busy , and the most successful markets employ multiple strategies to attract and retain a strong customer base.

One cost-effective approach is to encourage existing customers to buy more, buy more frequently, or become ambassadors for the . In 2016 and 2017 CISA tested several customer loyalty tools in partnership with both winter and summer farmers’ markets.

Here’s what we learned:

MOST POPULAR

Rewards card/punch card for frequent shoppers. This card is similar to the “buy ten, get one free” cards offered by many merchants. Each time shoppers come to the market, they get their card punched at the market manager’s booth. Once they’ve visited the market a certain number of times—we chose six visits—they are eligible for a prize. Vendors donated prizes like a pint of maple syrup or a small bag of apples, but markets also used market tokens or t-shirts.

This was the most popular loyalty tool in our study:94% of participating markets will continue using the cards. Cards are inexpensive to print, familiar to customers, and easy to use.

Suggestions for success:

  • An outgoing market manager who is actively promoting the loyalty cards is more effective than signs at publicizing the program and building use.
  • Wallet-sized cards are easier to use than the slightly larger business card size. One market filed customer cards in a recipe box at the market manager’s booth so customers did not need to remember them.
  • Vendors are often happy to offer product for prizes, although one challenge can be that it is harder for vendors selling more expensive items to contribute.
  • Some very small markets rotated the task of stamping the cards among vendors each week.

Feedback from customers: Market customers at our focus groups reported that they preferred receiving a small, immediate prize, like some additional produce or a market token, rather than being entered in a drawing for a larger prize.

EFFECTIVE WITH EFFORT

A tablet, such as an iPad, to collect shoppers’ contact information, take photographs, and offer real-time social media contact with customers. Tablets (or smartphones) open up a wide variety of communications options. One of the most basic is collecting legible customer contact information in order to send newsletters or market reminders. Some markets make great use of Facebook and Instagram, sometimes during the market itself, to remind customers about the market and entice them with the day’s offerings. These techniques can harness the power of social media to make market customers ambassadors for the market.

Suggestions for success:

  • It’s easier to collect customer contact information on a tablet, but more market managers may have and be willing to use their personal smartphone, which reduces the out-of-pocket costs of this technology to a market.
  • Mentoring or training can go a long way here to help markets effectively use technology and social media. Market managers were eager for examples of successful use of tablets or smartphones for market promotion and training on how to use social media on the go.

Feedback from market managers: Fewer markets used iPads, but the ones that did were very enthusiastic. Barriers remain, however: it’s hard to find time at a busy market to take and post photos, and it is easier for some market managers to shoot compelling pictures and write pithy text than it is for other managers.

Customer benefit activities, such as Kid’s Days, sampling, and food preparation demonstrations. These are familiar activities at larger urban markets, but can be hard for smaller, understaffed markets to pull off. Our goal was to help markets create activities once, hoping that repeating them the following season would be easier.

Feedback from market managers: Events are very well-received by customers. They don’t necessarily increase sales on the day of the event, but they improve customer and community satisfaction. Even with support from a non-profit like CISA, they are hard for understaffed markets to accomplish.

POTENTIALLY EFFECTIVE

Texting app for customer communications. CISA offered to pay texting app fees and created a guide to using texting for market promotion, explaining legal requirements such as customer opt-in rules. However, few of the markets in our region chose to use texting for market communication.

The out-of-pocket costs of a texting app are quite low, and we believe that text reminders could be a valuable tool for market customer communication. Market managers rightly recognized, however, that effective use of texting would require an up-front and ongoing investment of time and attention. The response of market managers to this option confirms that many farmers’ markets operate on a shoestring, lacking a business structure that would allow them to invest in activities that could help build their success.

“Friend of the Market” buttons. Modeled on a button used at the Coventry Regional Farmers’ Market in Coventry, Connecticut, where customers who purchase and wear buttons are rewarded with small surprise giveaways from vendors—a cucumber or carrot added to whatever they had purchased, for example.

Feedback from market managers: Few markets wanted to try buttons. Those that did reported that customers—especially a market’s biggest fans—like getting button, but they didn’t want to pay for them. Market managers thought buttons could be a great way to celebrate a market event or anniversary, but didn’t believe they were an effective method of building customer traffic or creating market ambassadors.

Research conclusions:

Customer loyalty tools can be a valuable method of encouraging existing customers to shop at farmers’ markets more frequently. Both customers and market managers were pleased with the programs and wanted them to continue; 94% of the markets that participated in our study will continue to use the most popular loyalty tool, frequent-customer reward cards, plus four new markets adopted the tool.  In total, we anticipate that a total of at least 19 farmers’ markets in our region will be using customer reward cards this coming year.

Different tools may be a good fit for different markets. Rewards cards are very simple to implement and don’t require new skills for most market managers, although they work best when the manager is outgoing and encourages their use consistently in personal interactions with shoppers. Customers also reported that they preferred smaller rewards more frequently rather than the chance at a larger reward.  We recommend that markets reward EVERY customer who fills in their card with a small gift such as a small market gift card, a bunch of kale, or a percentage off a purchase.

Tablets or smartphones and texting apps have the potential to reach customers when they are not at the market, reminding them of market hours and enticing them with information about special events and what’s available this week. These tools can also harness the power of social media to make market customers ambassadors for the markets. However, some market managers may need mentorship or training in order to make effective use of these tools. Markets with very little staff capacity may find these tools harder to use, because the market manager is too busy during the market and/or because the manager has little or no paid time in between markets.

Service providers such as farmers’ market networks, non-profit organizations, or University Extension or Department of Agriculture personnel can play an important role providing training or examples of these tools in use.

Many farmers’ markets do not bring in enough money in vendor fees or other income to support an investment in staff time and activities that can help to build a customer base. This lack of capacity can hinder the growth of markets, creating a downward spiral in which farmer vendors don’t generate enough income at the market to justify the time that it takes, fewer vendors attend the market, and the lack of product diversity reduces customer attendance. Tools such as those tested here can help to reverse this trend, but they too require an investment of time and effort. Markets, vendors, and communities that value local farms and food must consider business models that allow markets to make an investment in their own success. 

 

Participation Summary
57 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

42 Consultations
2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

57 Farmers
39 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

We provided several consultations to each of the 21 participating markets, serving roughly 100 individual farm vendors.  We prepared a factsheet on texting aps and one on loyalty tools activities, which has been distributed to each of the 39 farmers’ markets in our region. In addition, we have distributed the fact sheet to Mass Farmers Markets, which manages 3 Boston-area markets and provides services to markets across the state; to 9 Massachusetts partner organizations which provide outreach and support services to farms and farmers’ markets in different regions of the state, including Berkshire Grown and the Southeaster Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership; to Wholesome Wave’s National Nutrition Incentives Network, which provides information to farmers’ markets across the country, and through listservs such as NEFOOD and Comfood. We conducted a workshop at Harvest New England on our findings to date on loyalty tools and did a presentation at our spring, 2017 farmers’ market manager meeting.  We have submitted a proposal to present on loyalty tools at an additional conference in December of 2017.

Learning Outcomes

1 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

Our farmer cooperator helped guide us and learned the results of this project – that punch cards work.

Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

This project benefitted from CISA’s on-going relationships and regular communication with the farmers’ market managers and vendors in our region. For example, we offer one or two farmers’ market manager trainings and networking meetings each year. Market managers are familiar with CISA staff and trust our experience and expertise about market needs. 

At the same time, this project allowed us to provide additional valuable services to participating markets. We visited markets more frequently, and offered support with dot surveys, which help markets understand their customers and their needs. The focus groups used for project evaluation gave us an opportunity to have in-depth conversations with a variety of farmers’ market customers. 

Through this study, we successfully evaluated the efficacy of these market loyalty tools. We will continue to encourage markets to adopt the most successful tools. We were reminded, however, that even with support, the chronic understaffing of most farmers’ markets can make it difficult to implement even relatively simple changes, activities, or events. 

Farmers market managers, vendors, and boards or steering committees would benefit from learning the results of this study, as would organizations or service providers that support farmers’ markets.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.