Building loyalty: Testing the efficacy of farmers market loyalty programs to engage the community and enhance sales
After considerable growth, both the number of farmers’ markets and the amount of direct sales have begun to decline in western Massachusetts. Markets are looking at loyalty programs that reward frequent or high-spending customers as possible strategies to reverse this trend. Very few loyalty programs have been implemented at farmers’ markets and analysis of their impact is even more limited. CISA’s project is designed to support farmers’ markets in implementing and evaluating customer loyalty programs. Our questions are: Can customer loyalty programs improve markets in terms of customer satisfaction and vendor satisfaction? And if so, which low-cost loyalty programs can farmers’ markets implement efficiently? We tested four loyalty programs with 11 markets in western Massachusetts and are now evaluating their impact through vendor and customer surveys and market data collected by market managers. A full report and one-page summaries on each loyalty program tested will be shared widely through Massachusetts’, northeastern, and national networks.
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 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:
- 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 managers 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. An example is attached.
- “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.
- An iPad to collect shoppers’ contact information, in order to send newsletters, texts, or other promotions to customers.
- Texting app for customer communications. CISA paid the cost of using the app for the 2016 market season.
- 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 and the ways they could be used. We made suggestions about options for prizes for a reward basket for frequent shoppers and contributed items for those baskets, such as CISA tshirts or water bottles or locally-grown specialty 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).
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: Collect data that will help us to evaluate the flow of traffic and sales at each market.
We helped participating markets do customer counts and “dot surveys” of customers to assess the number of shoppers, the geographic reach of the market, and the amount of money customers spent at the market. Nine markets completed dot surveys. We are currently evaluating the results.
We are now conducting vendor surveys and interviews with market managers to assess the impact of loyalty tool programs.
Objective 2: Write and disseminate findings so that markets across the country can evaluate and implement appropriate customer loyalty tools on their own.
This work is still ahead of us.
Timeline and accomplishments:
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).
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).
3. Train markets in tracking tools and implementing loyalty tools (CISA staff, markets, vendors, April 2016).
We completed these set-up activities as expected.
4. Implement market loyalty programs (CISA staff and markets, April – November, 2016).
Seventeen markets used loyalty tools in the summer 2016 season. A few additional markets used iPads loaned by CISA in the winters of 2015-2016 and 2016-17.
Market interest in the loyalty tools we offered was quite uneven. Eleven markets tested punch cards. Ten markets offered extra activities, such as Kid’s Days or food sampling/preparation demos provided by CISA. Only two used buttons, and only one was interested in texting. Three markets tried iPads. Market managers’ decisions were based on their assessment of the amount of work involved, their capacity to accomplish that work, and the likely effectiveness of the tool. Once we have completed our analysis of the impact of these tools, we will determine whether we should urge them to reconsider in choosing their approach to customer loyalty in the future, or whether their initial assessment appears to be accurate.
5. Finalize dot surveys (CISA staff, evaluator, farmer & market advisors, July, 2016).
6. Run dot surveys at markets (CISA staff, August – September, 2016).
We conducted dot surveys at 9 markets.
7. Collect market daily tracking sheets to date (CISA staff, markets, August, 2016).
8. Finalize end of season evaluation tools: vendor end of season survey, loyalty program participant survey (CISA staff, evaluator, farmer & market advisors, September 2016).
9. Collect end of season surveys and remaining market daily tracking sheets (CISA Staff, October – November, 2016).
10. Analyze data and draft findings (CISA staff and evaluator, December 2016).
11. Share preliminary findings with participating markets individually (CISA staff, markets, January 2017).
12. Finalize written report, executive summary, and one-pagers (CISA staff, evaluator, farmer & market advisors, January 2017).
13. Disseminate findings (CISA staff, February 2017).
We are currently engaged in evaluation and analysis and will complete this work in 2017.
Town Farm/Northampton Tuesday Market
1 Ventures Field Road
Northampton, MA 01060