How to Sell Farmers Market Goods Online
Faced with a new age of social distancing and sheltering at home, small farmers, homesteaders, and hobbyists who usually sell at local farmers markets are setting up online stores to sustain sales.
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Debbie Roos, sustainable agriculture agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension, recognized an urgent need within the farm community. While some farmers already had online stores, most had never experimented with e-commerce before. She immediately scheduled webinars to teach farmers how to set up an online store.
Amy and Gil Foster, owners of Gilcrest Natural Farm in Iron Station, North Carolina, typically sell beef, chickens, and eggs mostly at farmers markets. They opened their online store about a year ago. Before the pandemic, it accounted for about 5% of their sales. With a surge in orders recently, the online store now accounts for 75% of their business.
“I spend more time packing everybody’s order individually rather than just going to the farmers market,” Amy says. “But it certainly is nothing I want to complain about, because without it, I wouldn’t have any business. I am happy to spend the time. It’s the way to do business now.”
Both Debbie and Amy share their tips for setting up and operating an online store, and safely getting products to customers.
Choose an Online Farm Store Platform for Your Needs
There are many online platforms to choose from. For her webinar, Debbie uses Square. “Many farmers already use it and it’s fairly easy to get a store up quickly,” she says. Square offers a free membership, as well as the option to upgrade to a paid plan that has more features. A few other options include GrazeCart, HarvestHand, Cropolis, and CSAware.
Amy uses Barn2Door, which she says is a good fit because of its services and capabilities. “They have an onboarding service that guides you through the process to get your store set up, to get your items added, and if you have photos to get those posted,” she says. “I had my information in a Word document and they uploaded it for me.”
Barn2Door also integrated her customer email list, allowing Amy to easily communicate with customers to alert them of things like extended pickup times for orders. She can also segment her customers into groups. “I can do it by market. If I want a group of only chicken buyers, I can do that.”
Consider Transaction and Other Online Selling Fees
Beyond membership fees, be aware of all other potential costs.
Square charges 2.9% plus 30 cents for each credit card transaction in its free monthly plan. That means for 25 transactions totaling $500 in sales in one week, the farm would pay a fee of $22.
Other platforms charge between 2% and 7% of sales in addition to their monthly fee.
Some require a minimum amount of product sold each month. Others charge setup fees. Be aware of all those potential incremental costs before signing up with a platform.
Include Important Information About Your Farm
Once you’ve chosen an e-commerce provider, typically, it will request your business name, the type of business you have, your address, and the website design elements you prefer, including the number of pages, the layout, and the option to add a logo.
Because your online store will represent your brand and may be people’s first introduction to your farm, it’s helpful to include a description of your farm, the products you grow or make, and what makes your farm unique, whether that’s your history, your ethos, or your role in your local community.
“Being transparent about your growing practices is important,” says Amy, who recommends adding details like organic designations and whether your animals are 100% grass-fed. “It lets people know if you’re the right farm for them.”
Creating your website takes time; be prepared for this initial setup. “It will save time in the long run,” Amy says. “It preempts a lot of questions.” Because Gilcrest customers can find all the information they need on the online farm store, they reach out less often with questions, which cuts down the number of emails Amy has to respond to and phone calls she has to answer.
Add Products to Your Store
For each product item you add, include the price, a photo, and a robust, clear product description. Gilcrest Farm’s beef product descriptions include the fat percentage, the price per pound, and the product’s next availability for pickup. Descriptions also include cooking tips for using certain cuts or meat types.
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Take Your Online Store for a Test Drive
After you’ve linked the site to your bank account, carefully preview the site and hit publish, then test it out by ordering a product. “Order something from your store and make sure everything goes smoothly,” Debbie says. “Look at the email confirmation you receive. You absolutely want to test your site and make sure everything is functioning and there are no errors.”
Getting Farm Products to Customers: Safe Pickup
Now more than ever, it’s important to take critical safety measures and reduce contact as much as possible when customers pick up items at your farm or a designated farmers market location.
On your website, clearly state the address, date, and hours for pickup. If there is a specific location on your property where you can manage pickup logistics, explain that as well.
To ensure customers don’t have to get out of their cars or touch anything at your farm, you can have them drive up, and then have someone from the farm load prepackaged orders into their trunks.
Keep Your Farm Store Current
As availability of farm items changes through the season, make sure you keep your site updated. Including the week’s dates at the top of the page will reassure customers the listings are accurate. For example, instead of “Items available this week,” use “items available the week of June 7, 2020.”
On most platforms, when you add items to the store, there is an option to track inventory, which can save you time and hassle. For example, if you are selling 20 half-gallons of strawberries, the store will register when all 20 have been sold and won’t sell products you don’t have. “If you’re selling exclusively online, this is golden because you enter your inventory and you’re done,” says Amy.
Measure Your Online Store’s Success
After you’ve gotten your e-commerce site set up, and you’ve begun fulfilling orders, carefully track the amount of time you’re taking to run the site, package products, and handle pickup. Make sure you regularly evaluate whether the effort is paying off.
For Amy, the tradeoff has been eye-opening. It also has her thinking about the future. “We may find we have a silver lining to pivot and serve our customers better by reviewing our choices and by going fully online,” she says.