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Entrepreneurial learning journey: fresh fruit & veg markets of Antigua

February 8, 2016

For my second entrepreneurial learning journey blog in Antigua, I wandered down to the Saturday morning Farmers’ Market in the capital city St. John’s. The stalls burst with an eye-catching rich assortment of colourful fruits and vegetables, including mangoes, coconuts, okra, papaya, guava, tamarind, breadfruit, sugar cane and the island’s most famous fruit, the black pineapple. The market is a place you must visit when in Antigua.

The market is opposite West Street Bus Station and opens from 5.30am in the morning. The red-roofed new public market complex on Valley Road is the size of a modern supermarket. Inside, it’s a step back to a simpler time where vendors display an enormous array of freshly harvested foods from overflowing stalls. You have your produce weighed on an old-fashioned copper scales too, for that true market experience.

Local vendors from all parts of the island come to sell a wide variety of goods. The market tends to get crowded, so it’s best to arrive early in the day to make the most of the vendor variety. Amid the stands’ bright colours that same bustling energy of the shoppers crowd reflects the vibrant Caribbean lifestyle of the island. You will be astounded at the crowds of local villagers arriving with fruit and vegetables to sell, and empty shopping baskets to fill.

There is also a smaller craft market attached to the main market where you can find locally made arts and crafts, whilst fish is sold across the road in its own market, again the best time to go is Saturday morning (as early as possible). You can purchase local rum, Cavalier, and they also have the regular dark rum, white rum, and rum punch.

I’ve found those manning the market stalls to be almost unfailingly friendly. Some may look at you sleepy-eyed, but most are happy to inform you that the rose-coloured fruit you’re holding is a dragon fruit, or that the label-free bottle filled with roots and rum is actually an island aphrodisiac.

The vendors jostle with good humour for your attention by showing you some of the local fruits and vegetables they’ve brought along. If you don’t recognise them just ask, the vendors are only too willing to explain how to eat and cook the food, so it’s a great way to meet people and learn about Antiguan cooking.

Brightly coloured fruits that look as though they arrived via alien spaceship, bunches of dried herbs guaranteed to cure all ills and a thousand aromas, from the briny tang of fresh-caught sea creatures to the pungent assault of fresh cilantro, fill the air. Wandering through the Antiguan market is full tilt overload for the senses. It’s why experienced travellers always make time for a market visit.

The market is is also a great place to sample the local cuisine, with small food stalls or even full-fledged restaurants providing regional fare for a non-touristy price. While they may not be the most sparkling establishments, they serve up the flavoursome dishes locals grew up on, from scotch bonnet hot callaloo soup to garlic fused sticky dumplings.

For self-starters with a passion for selling and a desire to get back as much as they put into a business, starting a market stall is a serious option. Don’t be mistaken for thinking a market stall is below your entrepreneurial dreams, some of Britain’s greatest entrepreneurs started by staking high and selling cheap in a day-to-day selling activity – Tesco, Matalan, Innocent Drinks and Marks & Spencer are all examples of brands which have grown from simple foundations on the market stall:

  • Tesco was founded in 1919 by Jack Cohen from a market stall in London’s East End, where he began selling surplus groceries. He left the Royal Flying Corp at the end of the Great War and used his demob money to buy the first day’s stock. Cohen made a profit of £1 from sales of £4 on his first day. The Tesco brand appeared five years later when he bought a shipment of tea from a Mr T. E Stockwell. The initials and letters were combined to form TES-CO and in 1929 Cohen opened the flagship Tesco store in Burnt Oak, North London.
  • The son of a Liverpool docker, John Hargreaves left school at 14 and started his retail career selling Marks & Spencer seconds from a market stall. He opened his first Matalan store in 1985, after a visit to the United States convinced him of the huge growth potential for edge-of-town discount sheds.
  • Rich, Adam and Jon, who met at university in the early 1990s, went on a snowboarding holiday, during which they decided to stop talking about starting a business and actually start one. They sell their first smoothies from a stall at a music festival in London. A sign above the stall reads Should we give up our jobs to make these smoothies? and people were asked to throw their empties into bins marked Yes or No. Yes wins. Innocent Drinks is born.
  • A stall at Kirkgate Market in Leeds, saw Michael Marks open his first Penny Bazaar stall in 1884. Today an M&S heritage stall and coffee shop is located right beside the famous M&S clock in the 1904 Kirkgate Market building. It’s amazing what a penny can do. Don’t ask the price, it’s a penny was Michael Marks’ first slogan. It couldn’t be any simpler and both his idea and hard work soon paid off, but it was when Michael went into partnership with Tom Spencer in 1894 that the company we all know really started to take shape.

When it comes to selling on a stall, the day job varies enormously depending on what you’re punting and what your ambitions are. Fishmongers, grocers and florists get up at unholy hours to catch the earliest trade. For others, it’s a lifestyle thing. Some of these will only trade part-time or even just on a Saturday. Observing the Antiguans on their stalls, I noted a few standout skills and talents that any entrepreneur needs, whatever their trading style:

  • A passion for what you are creating and selling
  • In depth knowledge of your goods and industry, and understanding of the competition
  • A snappy sales technique built around good communication skills
  • Ability to rise early and work long hours
  • The all-important ability to haggle without putting off potential buyers

So what are the entrepreneurial learnings I picked up from the food sellers in the Antiguan market?

Live your ambition The early bird catches the worm – get there early, get set up and be prepared. Drill down to your absolute aspirations and lock them in. Then be sure to execute on them flawlessly so that customers learn exactly what you stand for and come to trust that you deliver.

Be creative in your selling Apply creativity in all aspects of your business model. Innovation shouldn’t be limited to new products and offerings. One fruit stall offered different bundles of fruit and veg in a smart selling and pricing strategy, the ‘3 for 2’ type offers we see in the supermarkets at home but in several different combinations.

Stay Fresh Keeping your business model as fresh as your fruit by leading the charge to change the shopping experience. Stalls had ‘offers of the day’, or introduced product as ‘fresh today, picked from the ground at 430am’. Some had the soils around the vegetables or tree branches and leaves with the fruit, creating authenticity, natural and interesting stall displays for their products.

Be smart Take customers on a journey to keep your offering new and different. One stall had full tasting offerings of their product, the classic ‘try before you buy’. Initially I wasn’t buying, but a sample tempted me and created new demand and secured a purchase.

Be quirky Create eye-catching product names. One stall had visually stunning photos, with product descriptions like ‘The half moon, silky and smoky’ and ‘Nature rejoice, chasing childhood memories.’ This leads to a natural curiosity, which draws customers in.

Provide product information One stall had hand-written product notes pasted on the box in front of each product, information about the product, harvest location, ecology and farmer biographies that caught my eye. A simple way of providing customer engagement.

Connect with your customers as people – make it personal– connect, talk to people – tales make sales, find common ground and relate to people; if people want a robot, they will go to a supermarket. The personality, character and friendliness of the stallholders created an experience, we talked and engaged as people, not as suppliers-customers.

The personal one-to-one interaction with the stallholders is as important as the product. I had one fruit seller who took my order, then he spent just two extra minutes doing something special.

He transformed himself into an artist. He drew pictures on the paper bags of the product – not just childlike images, but clever pencil sketches. In those few extra minutes, he became remarkable, and memorable, he made me feel like I was his only customer that morning. It takes 99% of the time you spend just to be average. The remarkable stuff can happen in 1% of your time – in a flash.

Antigua’s market is set around a cobblestone promenade where fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish stalls of every flavour, culture and genre exist side by side as vendor stallholders ply their trade with potential customers as they pass-by. You can stroll, shop, eat, laugh, wander, wonder and explore it all, a hub of creativity and a marketplace, a festival of entrepreneurial life.

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