Incorporating Online Ordering Systems to Increase Farmer Sales at Farmers' Markets and Beyond

Progress report for ONE20-368

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2020: $15,698.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2021
Grant Recipient: CitySeed
Region: Northeast
State: Connecticut
Project Leader:
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Project Information

Summary:

CitySeed has put in place state-of-the-art software and electronic systems for Farmers Market management, streamlining systems for farmers to sell their produce and products at our network of Farmers Markets. With the COVID19 pandemic, however, we have identified the need to further adapt, creating an online ordering platform to ensure farmers can continue to participate in pre-order/pick-up Farmers Markets, connect to customers seeking fresh food, and grow their sales during the current crisis and beyond. This project will work to monitor and evaluate an online pre-order and pick-up system that CitySeed will roll out, tracking farmer sales and customer counts both during the current crisis, and outside of the crisis. Our goal is to build capacity among farmers in our network to connect with customers through online sales. We see this both as a solution in the current time of crisis, when social distancing is required for public safety and health, and a sustainable solution to increase farmer sales both on-farm and at our Farmers Markets during normal times. 

 

Project Objectives:

In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, this project seeks to pilot test an upgrade of our Farmers Market systems and process to implement an adapted Farmers Market model that incorporates all social distancing precautions, and creates a pre-order and pick-up option to increase farmer sales and ensure customers have safe access to local produce and products. Specifically, our project seeks to (1) research current software and technology for online ordering, and create a centralized online ordering platform for CitySeed Farmers Markets; (2) build capacity of farmers to install and use this new system; (3) adjust Farmers Market layout and on-the-ground systems and processes based on continued surveying of customers and vendors, as well as and input from partners at the City of New Haven; (4) facilitate farmer exchanges on streamlining packing and distribution processes, and other methods to increase sales during this challenging time; and (5) capture a new base of customers that are looking for efficient and safe ways to procure their produce and other grocery items, both during the pandemic and beyond.  If we are successful, we will aid in keeping approximately 30 Connecticut farms in operation during and after COVID-19. 

Introduction:

Farmers Markets across the State of Connecticut, and across the nation, are closing or adapting new models of operation due to the spread of COVID-19. Farmers Markets, although officially deemed an ‘essential service’ (similar to a grocery store) by the State of Connecticut, must also operate under city-level health department and city permitting requirements related to meeting public health precautions that slow the spread of COVID-19. To date (4.14.20), New Haven has confirmed 710 cases of coronavirus and  Connecticut has confirmed 13,381 cases, and these numbers are expected to increase throughout April/May 2020. Annually, CitySeed works closely with about 60 vendors—half of whom are CT farmers—through our network of five Farmers Markets. Due to this public health emergency, farmers in our network are currently adjusting crop plans and struggling to identify safe routes for distribution of their product, particularly in urban centers, in order to keep up sales and keep their businesses viable. 

CitySeed sees the current crisis as both a major challenge and an opportunity for creative adaptation to better serve CT farmers in our network during this pandemic, and long after it has passed. The primary problem we aim to solve through this project is: how do we maximize CT farmer sales and continue to grow farmers’ customer bases while operating under current crisis conditions? And further, how can we adapt our market systems in ways that will sustain CT farmers' growth after the crisis has abated?

We believe that the effects of this pandemic, and operating under social distancing constraints, will last for some time, and may reoccur. CitySeed sees an opportunity within this challenging setting to adapt our Farmers Market management systems and support CT farmers to adapt and take advantage of current technology for online ordering and pickup, delivery, or aggregation. Doing so would maximize farmers’ sales at our Farmers Markets and create opportunity for increased on-farm sales as well.  

Our proposed solution to the stated problem is two-fold: 

(1) build on the quick adaptation we have already made by researching and rolling out across all vendors effective software systems that allow customers in Greater New Haven to pre-order directly from farmers and secure a staggered pickup slot at CitySeed Farmers Markets;

(2) streamline an adapted, safe Farmers Market that includes the following measures: appropriate vendor spacing; personal protective equipment; recommended hand washing and disinfection provisions; elimination of cash transactions; a streamlined, one-way drive/bike/walk-through option; time-spaced customer pickup slots to meet City requirements; and relevant outreach to all involved to ensure behavioral precautions are followed. 

With funding to support implementation and continual evaluation with customers and vendors of this proposed solution, we believe we can fully adapt and implement a Farmers Market that increases farmer sales and customer base during this crisis, and can result in sustainable economic growth for farmers once the current crisis subsides. Our results can be utilized as a case study for other Farmers Markets across the country looking to also boost farmers markets sales in the wake of COVID-19.

 

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Rachel Berg - Producer
  • Tom Truelove - Producer

Research

Materials and methods:

In order to build the capacity among farmers in our network to connect with customers through online sales, we have taken the following steps:

1 – Regularly surveyed farmers regarding their current pre-order and online sales capability. Conducted approximately 6 surveys over 3 months, averaging a 75% response rate.

2 – Regularly surveyed customers regarding their preferences related to online shopping or pre-ordering platforms. Conducted approximately 4 surveys over 2 months, with 50-90 responses per survey.

3 – Hired a summer intern to research online sales platforms currently on the market, especially those geared towards farms and farmers markets.

4 – Held 3 Market Advisory Committee meetings and 2 All Vendor Meetings, as well as at least 6 one-on-one meetings to discuss the feasibility of modified market models and options for online sales and pre-ordering.

5 – CitySeed developed a pre-order, drive through farmers market model, allowing customers to pre-order from vendors and pick up during a designated time slot.

6 – Tracked vendor sales and customer counts for comparison against 2019, when modified market models and online ordering were not utilized.

Research results and discussion:

1 – Surveyed farmers regarding their current pre-order and online sales capability.

Farmer Surveys (3/28 Vendor Survey, Vendor Pre-order Questionnaire, 5/9/20 Vendor Survey, Future of Farmers Markets – Vendors)

  • Measured farmers interest in offering pre-orders and online sales, their ability to offer customers online pre-ordering or an online store, their ability to take credit or debit payment through their websites or over the phone, and their ability to accept credit or debit payments in person.
  • We also requested the specific information that customers would need in order to place any orders, such as, website addresses, phone numbers, emails, accepted payment methods and when ordering opens and closes.

Farmer Survey Findings

  • The majority of vendors had the ability to accept online or over the phone credit card payments.  Less than 5 could not accept payments at the time of the survey. (3/17 Vendor Survey)
  • Vendors worked quickly to set up online shopping options for their customers.  The platforms most used were Square Stores and Local Line.
  • Pre-order markets and maintaining online stores is very arduous on farmers. (3/28 Survey)
    • Setting up an online store takes days of work and hours per week to maintain inventory; time farmers do not have.
    • Learning new technology is an obstacle.
    • Organizing, prepping, and packaging pre-orders adds additional work hours, increases staffing needs and creates storage and transportation issues for farms. 

 

2 – Surveyed customers regarding what they would prefer of an online shopping or pre-ordering platform.

Customer Surveys (Customer Survey 3/23, Customer Survey 3/28, Customer Survey 5/9, Customer Survey 5/30, 2021 Winter Market Customer Survey)

  • Measured their overall experience of attending the previous week’s market, if they felt comfortable and safe in that model of market, if they would participate again in that type of market and the factors contributing if they said no, if they experienced any issues at the market, and any comments they may have.
  • Measured the effectiveness of the pre-order, drive through market by asking their assigned time slot, when they actually arrived and when they completed their pick up.

Customer Survey Findings

  • Customers expressed a strong preference for a unified online sales market, where they can shop from all market vendors with a single check out process.
  • Customers appreciated the efforts and safety of having a drive through, pre-order only market, but would rather be able to shop onsite.
  • Customers pointed out some shortcomings of the pre-order only market model:
    • SNAP benefits cannot be used online
    • Not everyone has access to the internet, computers or smartphones to place orders or sign up for a pick up time slot.
    • Not everyone has a car (this was corrected by allowing walk up time slots)

 

3 – Researched online sales platforms currently on the market, especially those geared towards farms and farmers markets.

Online Sales Platforms Research (Covid-19 Preorder Market Software & linked spreadsheet)

  • Extensive research into over a dozen online sales platforms that may work for farms and farmers markets.
  • We found the platforms that seemed to meet most of our needs of farmers were prohibitively expensive.
  • We shared our research with farmers who were interested, though most had already chosen a method of online sales.

 

4 – Held 3 Market Advisory Committee meetings and 2 All Vendor Meetings, as well as at least 6 one-on-one meetings to discuss the feasibility of modified market models and options for online sales and pre-ordering.

  • Regularly consulted with the Market Advisory Committee to determine the safest market models, given the COVID-19 pandemic, that would have either a minimally negative effect or possibly a positive effect on vendor sales.
  • Assisted multiple vendors with set up of Square Store sites and reviewed sites for usability by customers.
  • Developed a system to allow SNAP customers to pre-order from vendors but pay onsite at the market, through CitySeed with their EBT card, as well as increased SNAP incentives for customers and adjusted the program to simplify their use with farmers.

 

5 – CitySeed developed a pre-order, drive through farmers market model, allowing customers to pre-order from vendors and pick up during a designated time slot.

  • Due to the urgent, immediate need for farmers and markets to adjust their way of doing business, many farmers developed or purchased the online platform that worked best for their individual business.  In order to serve as much of the community as quickly and as safely as possible, CitySeed responded by creating a website where market customers could find vendor pre-order information in one location. 
  • While creating a quick fix, it does not meet customers expectations or desires for a singular online shopping platform where they can easily order from all vendors in one online trip.  The use of this website and customers' experience with it does provide a good baseline for comparison once a single platform is in place.
  • To run the pre-order, drive through the market in an efficient and orderly manner, we asked customers to sign up for a designated time slot for their pick up time.  We utilized the Sign Up Genius website for this.  Through this, we were able to manage the length of each time slot, the number of people allowed to sign up per time slot and it gave us the opportunity to know who was in our marketspace at any given time, satisfying city and state contact tracing requirements.

 

6 – Tracked vendor sales and customer counts for comparison.

  • Out of 36 markets, 5 modified markets in 2020 exceeded the attendance counts from the corresponding week in 2019.
  • Overall, the 2020 season saw 14,388 less people than 2019.
  • 5 out of 16 farms reported sales increases in 2020 from 2019.
    • One produce farmer saw sales increase by $35,000, with no change in the number of markets attended from 2019. $14,000, 
    • Another producer saw sales increase by $14,000, attending only 1 additional market compared to 2019.
    • Two other produce farmers saw sales increase by %2,500-$4,000, despite attending 1-2 fewer markets than in 2019 and a fruit farmer saw an almost $3,000 increase, despite attending 3 less markets than 2019.
    • Farmers who showed significant loss of sales attended significantly less markets than in 2019.
    • A meat vendor who remained strictly pre-order only and did not engage in onsite sales, saw a sales decrease of about $9,000, with no change in the number of markets attended compared to last year.
  • We are still waiting on some sales data from vendors so these stats are currently incomplete.
Research conclusions:

With the start of the COVID Pandemic in March 2020, CitySeed quickly began to investigate and evaluate options to keep providing farmers with the opportunity to sell their products, despite the future of farmers markets being unknown. We researched online sales platforms and surveyed vendors and customers, to see what might work.  Given the need to make quick, business altering decisions, many farmers developed or purchased their own online sales platforms.  CitySeed then decided to keep researching options while doing our best to support the farmers.

We developed a pre-order, drive through style of market and provided customers with a website offering out vendors pre-order information.  Though it was not ideal for anyone, it worked and farmers were able to sell their goods and customers could access fresh fruits, meats and vegetables.

In July, we switched back to a modified, shop onsite market.  Pre-ordering was still allowed and encouraged, though the number of orders did dwindle as people began to leave their houses more and COVID numbers decreased.  However, the need for the online sales option still exists and farmers are seeing it as a way to increase their sales. One of the biggest issues farmers face with online sales platforms is the time it takes to set up the store initially, and then the time it takes to maintain accurate inventory online.  One of the biggest obstacles our customers report regarding online shopping or pre-ordering, is that they must conduct a new transaction for each vendor.  They would prefer more of a marketplace site where they can have a shopping cart and only one check out.

We recently learned that an additional online sales platform/POS will be available in March or April, through Farmspread and Marketspread.  CitySeed and our networks currently use this software for market management.  Until now there has been no POS/online ordering functionality. We are gearing up for another round of surveying to gauge if this software meets the needs of our farmers and customers and are working closely with Farmspread to potentially become one of a handful of markets that will serve as a beta-site, testing their software upgrades.  

Participation Summary
16 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

6 Consultations
2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
12 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

2 Farmers
Education/outreach description:

For this project, thus far, we have conducted outreach through surveying farmers, vendors and customers.  We have shared those findings, as well as the research we have gathered on online sales platforms, with farmers.  We also consulted with farmers as needed, to help them determine what system would work best for them at the market and overall.

Our modified market plans and pre-order system information was disseminated through the CitySeed newsletter twice a week, each averaging 887 opens, and through multiple social media posts per week, averaging about 1295 views per post.  Through email, we reached out to our partner organizations, City organizations such as the New Haven Food Policy Council, the Office of Elderly Services and the Board of Alders, all sharing the market information in their newsletters.  

At the completion of the project, we also plan on disseminating our results to the Connecticut farmers market social media group, on CT Food System Leaders listserv, the Farmers Market Coalition’s listserv (which has an active COVID-19 group) and on our website. 

 

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.