A farmers market can help turn a slow season into a great opportunity to attract new shoppers.
The winters are long and cold in Massachusetts, which poses a hard question for independent garden centers: How do I keep customers coming back, even when the ground is frozen?
Russell’s Garden Center in Wayland has found that farmers markets are an ideal way to make themselves a destination for more than gardening, and it has really put them on the map as a winter oasis.
The IGC’s summer farmers market was a big success, so three years ago, they started up the Wayland Winter Market, and they’ve been building on it ever since. The market runs from January to March right at the center, giving Russell’s a unique advantage during a tough time.
“One thing about having it at the garden center is we have it when things are not particularly happening here,” says Peg Mallett, market coordinator. “Christmas is very big at Russell’s, so we really couldn’t do it inside here any earlier. But after Christmas, the footprint of the store is suddenly empty.”
The market is held partly outdoors and partly in the center’s greenhouses, which are usually occupied by water gardening or Christmas stock.
Use the market to your advantage
Russell’s doesn’t grow their own vegetables, but they do sell vegetable plants, along with a wide variety of hard goods during the market. “In the eye of the garden center, there’s the hope that people coming to shop at the market are also coming to shop at the store,” Mallet says.
During the winter, Russell’s still offers a fully stocked gift shop, flower and candle shop and much more for customers stopping by for some fresh food.
|Top: Charley Baer helps customers choose from his stock of beans at the Wayland Winter Farmers Market. Bottom: Steph and Camille meet a new friend at Farm Fiber Days.
“It has really started to pick up for sure,” Mallett says. “The big thing in my mind is that we’re drawing people from all over the place. The response has just been phenomenal. Even if sales on those days aren’t going up a lot, there are people coming that have never been here and we hope they’ll follow up in spring and fall.”
The hustle and bustle of the market is a great environment to meet and chat with customers as well. As the market grows, more and more potential customers are making their way through the store and employees are getting to know the regulars, what they like and what they’re planning to plant.
“It’s a great community event,” Mallett says. “We’re getting to know good customers.”
Invite the local farmers
Mallett recommends a farmers market to other independent garden centers looking to boost their winter customer base. To get started on the farmers market, Russell’s first had to find farmers and vendors with products to sell during the winter months.
“The first thing was finding farmers who were growing or had stores of root vegetables,” Mallett says. “There weren’t too many, but now there are more that are growing year-round.”
Farmers now flock to Wayland with lettuce, herbs, beets, potatoes, wine, onions, eggs, fresh fish, coffee, beef, bread, root beer, prepared foods and more. The market has grown leaps and bounds in just three years, but Mallett warns against getting too large.
“Some weeks we’ve had more than 50 vendors,” she recalls. “It’s a matter of how to fit everyone inside. We don’t want it to get so huge that it diminishes the amount the farmers can sell. People are only going to come with so much money.”
Create an oasis
Bringing in local farmers, artisans and crafters, the center is now an oasis for cold New Englanders.
Over time, the staff has created a greenhouse area stocked with plants from the garden center. Russell’s even created a café where customers can meet, chat and enjoy the greenery during the winter, which draws people to the garden center all year long. “The last two years, it was like an oasis,” Mallett says. “Last year, we decided to create a food court with prepared foods and small tables where people could sit amongst the houseplants and enjoy them in that setting during the winter.”
There are special events for people of all ages like Farm Fiber Day, a festival of textiles, and Massachusetts Winery Day. “Then the marketing from my end goes out to the people that love wine,” Mallett says. “These events have brought in some new demographics.”
Over the last year, the garden center has attracted a lot more young families thanks to the farmers market. To capitalize on the new trend, Russell’s is hosting some additional events like a story hour with a local librarian and a whole foods story hour and parents group.
“It’s great,” Mallett says. “In my mind, it’s a great way to bring the community together in a non-competitive way as a destination in support of these farmers or small specialty food producers.”