Today we’re interviewing Jordan McPhee of Maple Bloom Farm from Prince Edward Island, whose farmers’ market was recently shut down due to the COVID pandemic. He organized an effort to bring the local vendors from his market online so that their customers could continue to patronize them at one central pickup location.
Can you talk a little about how your local farmers’ market came online? (1:30)
I’ve been building and planning online stores with developers for a number of years, so I had a plan waiting in the wings when the COVID-19 started becoming an issue for us. Once we were shut down we had five days to come online. Luckily I had already started talking to other farmers about coming online weeks before about selling on my online store coming in June. I simply ramped up what I was already planning and after meeting with these vendors and the market managers we had an incredibly successful launch.
Our physical market had 60 vendors, and as of now, we have 24 signed up online. We were able to onboard farmers by communicating with them via spreadsheet and they would fill out their product information including, the name of the product, number of units, and the capacity they could fulfill. I entered that information online for them. The website has a single cohesive look and you can search by product name or producer name.
How smooth has the sales process been? (6:20)
Gathering orders went as expected, the problem came when we were exporting orders using the software we had set up we weren’t able to differentiate by order name or number. There was no real chronological or alphabetical order to how the orders were packed. This made it difficult to find the orders later when customers came to pick them up. That was a bit difficult, but we do have a plan to download the sheet a day earlier next time and set up the orders in an organized way by order number and by distribution zone.
Do customers pay for their order online? (9:45)
Because of COVID-19, everything is strictly no touch. So we only take payment online. All of the orders have to have the item affiliated to the producer because all of the money is paid to a single account, and then has to be distributed by who is owed what. We know exactly how much of each product has been sold and we want that vendor to invoice us for them at the end of the week so there’s a paper trail.
I question the success of having one person or channel being in charge of distribution for a market like this, managing all of the products and answering all of the people’s questions, instead of the individual vendors being in charge of their own products. What’s been your experience? (12:00)
That’s an important question we took some time to discuss before we executed on this. We considered ourselves a wholesale distributor using this model. So each farmer is paying a one time $5 per item posting fee, and in addition, we charge 20% of total revenue. Compared to what these vendors were paying as a weekly fee for their physical stalls at the market this fee was comparable, and even where it was 30% or so more these vendors saw an increase in sales by around that much as well. We have to charge this much as it took 10 people from 8 am-8 pm to fulfill and distribute these orders, or 12 hours, valued at $15/hr.
This is really a fair price when you compare it to other wholesale distributors. I have one I work with during the summer who takes a 30-40% cut depending on the product. We’re working on a software that can work with this kind of distributor model we’re using now, and also the farmer runs hosting and management of products.
We’ve proposed this model multiple times at our meetings and it’s been voted down by a slim margin. Now that we’ve trialed it and it’s brought in just as much money as the physical market not many people are going to want to revert because it means you only have to drop off your product each week, not host a market. When we go back we can do a hybrid model.
Is there a cut-off time by when you need to order or is the online store open 24/7? (23:20)
We count back 72 hours from the midnight the night before the pickup day, so if your pickup is on Saturday afternoon you count back to Wednesday at midnight for the last available order day, and then instead of taking the store down for those 3.5 days we leave it up to receive orders for the pick up the following Saturday. We thought that perhaps there wouldn’t be too many orders then, but it turned out that over $3k of orders came in during those days. It might be a result of the crisis, but we’ll see soon enough. We believe since people have gone through the process of selecting the products they’re willing to pick the later date if need be.
Do you plan on adding additional pickup days? (26:00)
All year round we’re open Saturdays from 9a-2p. Wednesday market days are only from June to October at the same time. If we’re to have the online store continue it would be each day of the week following the physical market because that’s when the product could be brought and stored for the next day.
What type of time commitment would it take to set this up? (28:15)
You want someone who is comfortable with managing a spreadsheet program and being able to export those in a format other farmers can understand. Expect about a week of spreadsheet work to get it setup. That being said we’re going to move to the multiple supplier version of the software as soon as possible. It’s going to take some training for the farmers to understand the spreadsheets so orders aren’t made incorrectly. We’ll be able to reduce the price of the fee for those people. We’ll keep the option of managing products for those people who don’t know how to manage this kind of software.
If you don’t have any experience with this kind of software you should take the time to set up a network slowly, don’t try and set up a multi-farm distribution channel right out of the gate without knowledge of how to manage the details of food safety, proper handling, and logistics. Starting small with something like 10 of your own items sold via an online platform will begin to give you a sense of what it takes on a weekly basis to tackle all of these details. Once you look to scale make sure you tap into your social network and offer discounts to the wholesale price breakpoint to vendors who are selling in your network, like a 10% fee instead of 20%, or veggies to volunteers to get the setup started. Just make sure what you’re offering in the online world matches what you can deliver at the end of the day.
How do you manage refunds and disputes from customers? Do you provide the contact information of the farmers whose product they purchased or the market manager’s information? (37:45)
In the case of a returned item, the first thing I offer them is the opportunity to list that item in their order next week and it will be credited to them at the next pickup. If they didn’t want to order again then I’d go into Stripe which is the online payment processor we’re using and I find that customer and issue them a refund. The market will absorb that cost.
As for a quality issue, say if they ordered mushrooms and they went bad in a couple of days, we’d first offer them a replacement and the vendor will bring that item for the customer free of charge the following week. If they want a refund then we’ll issue them a refund and the vendor will be charged 80% of the price of that item. We are considering if we are holding onto the funds from the purchase in the future we could issue a refund without having to charge the vendor.
You’re using an e-commerce site called Local Line. What’s been your experience in using it? (41:00)
They’re a small company based out of Ontario. The setup process is fairly clear and straightforward. The same with the customer experience, it’s a fairly straight flow through. We did have a challenge with managing how the orders were exported so we could organize the pickup. We made the mistake of printing out all of the zones out at once. We had 207 orders come in and we need to organize them differently next time.
How did you make this public to bring the customers in to shop online with you? (44:00)
I started by placing a Facebook ad, paying $75 a day. We put a link to a landing page explaining who, what, when, where and why. Start with the why to tell your story. Linked to that is a shop now button that they can click through to see the online store. We had over 3000 people click through on this ad. About 10% of those people shopped with us after viewing the site, which is about the conversion you’re looking for.
You’re developing your own software called Waggon – what is it and how will it fit in this new online farm sale landscape? (47:40)
This software will allow you to host a market just as we have, or host a CSA. You can visit the site and sign up with your email address and get a free one month trial to see if it will work for your customers.
If you want to learn more about Jordan’s online e-commerce platform, check it out here at Waggon.ca. You can view the PEI online marketplace here and the platform Local Line they’re using with this link.
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