Beyond the Market: Selling to Retailers

Posted by Jolene Swain on March 18, 2021

Have you outgrown the farmers’ market? Can you produce more than you can sell direct to customers? Are you ready to branch out to retailers? Here are some tips and tricks from retailers and producers to help assess your readiness and provide some considerations when it comes to moving your product beyond the market.

Flexible farm business incubators

Farmers’ Markets are a great incubator for local producers to fine tune their growing practices while building up a customer base and brand. Direct to customer sales offer a short supply chain and forge valuable relationships with the community. Cutting out the ‘middle man’ can also yield greater returns, especially when quantities are limited. When it comes to perishable products like vegetables, farmers’ markets offer the flexibility of bringing whatever you grow or raise, without contractual expectations around how much product will be available each week.

100 Mile Farmers’ Market

However, as your farm business gets established and expands crop production, along with succession planning, processing, distribution, storage, marketing and all the other bits and pieces, you may find yourself with more product than the local market(s) can handle, and a desire to streamline production, or diversify sales channels. Other reasons to diversify market channels might include reducing the amount of time devoted to direct marketing, such as managing orders, communications with customers, pricing and displays, and so on, on top of that “small” task of growing all the food.

While dealing with a ‘middleman’ might not be for everyone, shifting to retail can offer more freedom to focus on farming by supporting a retailer and thus managing fewer direct relationships. Keeping the retailer happy who will in turn keep many customers happy.

We asked retailers and producers to share any advice they would offer growers contemplating moving their product beyond the market. Here’s what they shared.

Grow better, not bigger

Before taking on more land and more labour – contemplate the wise words of market gardener extraordinaire – Jean Martin-Fortier “before you grow bigger, grow better”. This gets back to recordkeeping. What are your most profitable crops, where are you losing money? Increasing production may not be necessary, but rather a shift towards crops that you have the resources, equipment, and market to grow may be a good step. Make sure you are maximizing the space you currently have before taking on more. Bigger isn’t always better!

Do you have a good idea of how much you’ll have ready and when? You should already have a good record-keeping system in place to measure your production capacity and potential from year to year so that you can feel pretty confident in what you will have available and by when (with the understanding that things don’t always go as planned).

Pro tip: start small. Start with something you know you can produce consistently at a high quality. Once you’ve established your presence in the store, and developed a routine for getting product on the shelves, consider expanding the selection.

Can you produce a consistent product? Will it be available consistently? Retailers are constantly working to keep shelves full and lapses in supply can look bad for everyone. How will your product be packaged? Displayed? What is the shelf life, and how quickly will it move off the shelves? If the conditions or packaging aren’t right, product appearance can make or break a sale. While some stores may be set up for controlled temperature and humidity conditions, others may be relying on frequent deliveries and a fast turnaround.

Pro-tip: When you visit potential retailers, check out what’s on the shelf, bring samples, and discuss the expectations around product presentation, storage, delivery and availability.

Cultivating Relationships

No matter what business you’re in, success inevitably comes down to relationships. Selling products to retailers is no exception and building and nurturing a healthy relationship is key. Be open, be flexible, and be honest.

Even more important than making connections with retailers, is the relationships and brand you have been building with customers and the community over time. Customers can be your biggest asset and are a big part of driving the demand for local product in stores.

Ask your customers where they’d like to see your product. Even better, if customers are requesting your product from the retailers themselves, that can be the start of a beautiful thing.

Big Rock Ranch in 100 Mile restocking their local retailer

Ready, set, sell!

Are you ready to branch out into retail? Like, really ready? Remember that building healthy and strong relationships retailers may come with some degree of commitment.  Are you able to offer a consistent and somewhat constant supply to meet demand?

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Can I grow a consistent product in a fairly predictable quantity?
  • What sets my product apart from what’s currently on offer? Is it price? Freshness? Unique varieties? Your local farm story?
  • How will my product be packaged when it is delivered, and when it is on the shelf?
  • How much product can the seller take at once? Do they have adequate storage?
  • Who will buy, or is buying and using my products or services? How can you reach out to new customers in the store? (i.e. offering samples? Social media?)
  • Who are my competitors and what products are competing with mine?
  • How many deliveries will be expected? Can you manage this?
  • How will you invoice? How will you get paid?
  • What paperwork and record-keeping will be required? (i.e. washing SOPs, Food Safe certification?)

There are many considerations when selling through a retailer. Storage, display, packaging, deliveries, pricing, invoicing. Each retailer will have their own system, with some more flexible than others. Be prepared to have conversations around expectations and procedures.

What is your farm story?

Beyond having a brand, every farm has its own story to tell – a story that consumers are interested in learning as part of their experience of buying food. Consumers increasingly want to know where their food is coming from and bringing the farm story and traceability to the store is something that could set your product apart (and keep your product moving off the shelves)!

Local produce at Long Table Grocery in Quesnel, BC

Where to sell?

Small Independent Grocers

Sales to small independent grocers can be a great place to start. Small local grocers and health food stores can be very supportive of local producers – but don’t take this for granted. As a small business, like a farm business, there are many logistical demands when it comes to sourcing and selling product.  Consistent quality product, delivery, paperwork and good communication are just part of building a strong, long lasting relationship with your retailer.

Farmer Cam grows his produce 4km from the local Safeway
Larger Retailers

While  working with a larger retailer may be intimidating. If you are confident in being able to supply a larger grocery store, then consider reaching out. While some larger retailers may not consider your product without third party certification, others may have an internal process to support local producers in getting their product on the shelves. Expect paperwork, but also know that working with a larger retailer comes with some perks – an established receiving and storage system in place, knowledgeable staff, and experience with displays and product storage (which means ideal temps for product storage, shelf life, and freshness).

Garlic harvest at WoodGrain Farm

Grow big or go home, so they say… But seriously, if you are looking to scale up production and want to move product through a wholesaler. Keep in mind that moving bulk quantities of product comes with its own set of challenges. Packing, loading and shipping pallets to a wholesaler may require additional infrastructure (forklift, bigger truck, pallet wrap), not to mention the on farm harvest/packing set up. Do you have the capacity to go from a 100lb harvest of carrots to 1000lbs? You may want to revisit your harvest, washing, and packing stations so that operations are streamlined on bulk harvest days and you’re not running into bottlenecks. Selling in bulk will mean a lower price point – but in exchange there may be less individual packaging, less worry about moving a lot of product all at once, and the opportunity to focus on fewer crops.

Retailers and distributors like SPUD.CA love sharing farmer stories

Nurture & share the love

Healthy relationships need to be nurtured. Keep lines of communication open, and check-in with the store to see how your  product is holding up, and if all processes are working.

Finally, don’t forget to promote the stores that are selling your produce. Working with a new producer comes with some risk and also extra paperwork – but having your product in a store will promote your brand and move your product, don’t forget to promote the store in return!