written by: Taylor Witkin
An elderly couple walked up to my stand, looking interested in my smoked fish. “Would you like a taste of some delicious smoked salmon?” I called out. As they got closer I noticed them eyeing the prices with a look of disappointment. My wild Alaskan sockeye was by far the most expensive product at the market. Instead of accepting my offer, the man looked at his wife who shook her head. He then responded, “No thank you, I just brushed my teeth,” and turned heel. I almost fell over laughing, this being one of the more ridiculous responses to my offer of a free sample. As I would soon discover, it was a pretty common answer, and one that highlights some improper farmer’s market behavior, both on the part of the customer and the vendor.
Farmer’s markets exhibit one of the purest forms of sales and marketing. You can’t look at anything without interacting with a seller; small tastes entice market-goers better than any slogan. This dynamic between patron and purveyor can lead to awkward social interactions. Fortunately, they can be avoided by embracing some proper farmer’s market etiquette.
Get to know your farmer
One of the best parts of farmer’s markets is the opportunity to interact with the people that make or grow your food. Vendors tend to be friendly and interesting, with a passion for their produce. Talking to them and asking questions about products is encouraged. When you know more about where your food came from and how it was grown you have more power over the choices you make. And knowing who grew it and the care that it took to produce is guaranteed to make your food taste better.
If you’re a returning customer providing feedback is also encouraged. Providing recipes to purveyors gives them another marketing tool, something they can share with future patrons. Commenting on the difference between batches lets vendors supply the best possible product each week and hearing that you put their food to good use makes vendors feel good. That being said, don’t monopolize a vendor’s time. Be aware that other people might have questions or want to make a purchase.
Samples are there to be eaten
Vendors can talk all they want but free samples will always be the best way to make a sale. Chances are, if you’re wowed by the flavors you’ll be more inclined to make a purchase, even if it’s a bit outside your price range. And if you’ve never tried something, how do know you don’t want to buy it? There’s no rule that says if you try a product you have to spend money. While I always enjoy making a sale, I’m also happy simply introducing people to something new. Expanding someone’s horizons usually brings a smile to their face and is an investment in future sales.
At the same time, free samples don’t mean free lunch. Vendors only have a limited supply and when the samples are gone they lose their best marketing tool.
Things tend to get most uncomfortable when it comes time for the market-goer to walk away. People seem to feel immensely guilty, especially if they’ve already indulged in a sample. At the end of the day it’s your money and your decision. Don’t feel bad about not buying something and don’t feel obligated to tell the vendor why. You don’t owe them anything except courtesy. If you do give a reason keep it short and realistic. No excuse will make the seller feel better after having not made a sale. Just be polite.
On the flip side, vendors should never express frustration with a customer looking for an excuse not to buy. At a recent market, a cheese monger offered me samples of aged gouda. I didn’t want to lead him on so after eating a bite I told him it was great but out of my price range at the moment. He rolled his eyes, groaned, and put down the small piece of cheese he was about to give me. Though the gouda was phenomenal he lost a future customer. Remember that just because someone didn’t buy anything doesn’t mean they won’t be back.
Though different markets have different policies, with unique views on how patrons and purveyors should act, there are some things that never fly. Like never buy a smoked salmon fillet and feed it to your dog in front of a line of other customers or use the excuse “I don’t want to get fat” when declining a sample of heart healthy salmon after inhaling two maple-bacon donuts. Farmer’s markets are places to build relationships and develop connections with your food. All it really takes to make the most of each visit is courtesy and a bit of common sense.