by Thomas N. Tomas
I used to raise watermelons. I sold mostly Crimson Sweet, a medium-sized, red-fleshed, sweet melon. I also raised Sugar Baby and orange-fleshed Texas Tendersweet. I would cut one of each variety and display them on the end of the pickup. People would come up and say, "A yellow watermelon? I've never seen one like that. What do they taste like?" I would cut them a slice and tell them "It's like red watermelon only it tastes orange." An old joke, but they would laugh and take a taste, and we would get to talking. Before you knew it, there would be a crowd of people there listening, talking, tasting watermelon and having a good time.
Would this have happened if my pickup was by itself on a roadside? Well, maybe, but it wouldn't have been as much fun, and I wouldn't have sold as many melons because people would only stop if they had melons on their minds. At the market, customers could go on to the next pickup where they could maybe buy the tomatoes they came to the market for in the first place. And while they were there, they would see lettuce and cabbage and eggs and... well, you get the idea.
A word about price competition vs. cooperation. I'm not talking price fixing, just not doing something stupid. If the only thing you have to offer is a lower price, you won't stay in business for long because there is always someone who can sell it for less than what it costs you to produce it. This is what industrial production of food is all about. What you need to do is to figure out not what is a fair price for you, but what is a fair price for the entire market to succeed.
I always tried to keep track of what produce was selling for in the supermarkets, and then set my prices above that as a starting point. When the market got going, I would compare my quality and price to others in the market and then set my price a little higher than the prevailing price for comparable quality.
It took me a few years to arrive at this pricing strategy, but it worked for me and the other vendors in the market. For me, it allowed a better return for my produce, even if I lost a few customers to lower prices at another stand. It allowed them to get enough sales to make it worthwhile to come back and provide me with the competition I needed. I say I needed it because, without other choices for customers to compare my produce with, they had no ready reference to decide whether or not dancing with me was more fun than dancing with someone else. I needed that competition to do a better job of growing and selling.
Others in the market who tried to compete by cutting prices might "win" by selling out that day, but in the long run they did not stay in the market. Some will speculate that they didn't come back because they figured out they could not make a profit at a lower price, but I suspect that they didn't come back because there isn't much fun in that kind of selling. They only came to the dance to make money, and let's face it, there are easier ways to make money.
Sellers and buyers can cooperate to make a market a fun place by inviting local people to perform live at the market. It can be music, singing, a style show by the 4-H club or a cooking demonstration; as long as it is live and local it will work. The more diversity among sellers the better, as long as it is local and homemade, whether it be crafts, baked goods or preserves.
What makes a market an ongoing part of a community is the involvement of as many people as possible with different interests and talents who enjoy the process. You can make money selling in this kind of a market, but you can't do it alone. You need to make the effort to see that everyone is having a good time along with you if you are going to be a success.
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