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Lessons in entrepreneurship from Rawtenstall Farmers’ Market

May 24, 2016

The Grand Opening of Rawtenstall Market Hall by Mr Alderman Law, Chairman of the Market Committee, took place on Thursday January 18 1906, to many toasts and speeches by the Mayor and other members of the council. Saturdays and Thursdays were the designated days, with a cattle sale on the first Thursday in January, April, July and October.

Today, Rawtenstall Market is a community of traders that offer most things that you need, from fruit and veg to pet food and accessories, quality meats, cakes, biscuits and speciality foods, or new blinds for your home. It’s a friendly place and I wander down the hill to visit most Saturdays.

There are stallholders who are second and third generation family traders, and it is these connections, which give the sense of continuity and community often seen in local Markets. Our historical heritage means a lot to the traders and to Rossendale people as a whole. The Market has declined in recent years as the demographic of the area has changed, and the proliferation of the Supermarkets and online shopping impacted, but it still has a vibrancy and place in the local community.

Now to add to the traditional Market, a new Farmers’ Market was launched in April on the Town Square, with more then thirty stalls featuring a fantastic range of local and artisan fresh produce, together with some traditional herbal drinks, handcrafted soaps, exotic jams, and a variety of black puddings. There were also presentations of traditional local skills that were associated with Farmers’ Markets in the past, including a blacksmithing demonstration, glass fusing and coppicing garden poles.

We had a group of discerning stallholders, offering diverse, high quality local products, and it is hoped that the Market will establish itself as a distinct brand, and a regular attraction in Rawtenstall. Despite the usual horizontal mizzle, it attracted hundreds of visitors. Future Markets are planned for the last Sunday of every month through the summer, and we’ll also be getting a Clog Market in June, celebrating unusual home made crafts from local artists, craftsmen and women.

What a great way to spend a Sunday morning. I found those manning the Market stalls to be almost unfailingly friendly. Some may look at you sleepy-eyed because it was an early Sunday start, 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 ale is actually a Lancastrian aphrodisiac.

The vendors jostle with good humour for your attention, bunches of dried herbs guaranteed to cure all ills and a thousand aromas, fill the air. The Market is also a great place to sample the local cuisine, with small food stalls serving up the flavoursome dishes locals grew up on.

For self-starters with a passion for selling and a desire to get back as much as they put into a business, working a Farmers’ 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 in a day-to-day Market trading activity – Tesco, Innocent Drinks and Marks & Spencer are all brands which grew from simple local 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.

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 sold their first smoothies from a stall at a music festival in London. A sign above the stall read: 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, 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.

At these Markets, Farmers can retain the full premium for their produce, instead of only a processor’s wholesale price. Where consumers perceive the Farmers’ produce is of better quality than produce available through stores or grocers, Farmers may retain most of the cost savings to themselves. Some Farmers also prefer the simplicity, immediacy, transparency and independence of selling direct to customers.

I was drawn to the Farmers’ Markets for three main reasons: food quality, better prices, and a great social atmosphere There was a better variety of foods – organic foods, pasture-raised meats, free-range eggs and poultry, handmade farmstead cheeses. The Town Square was a throwback, a place to meet neighbours, chat, and despite the weather, a place to enjoy an outdoor walk and fresh air while getting needed groceries

When it comes to selling on a stall, the day job varies enormously depending on what you’re punting and what your ambitions are. Bakers, cheesemakers, grocers and florists get up at unholy hours to prepare for the day. For others it’s a lifestyle thing. Some of these will only trade part-time or even just on a Sunday. Observing the Rossendalians 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 customers, 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 Rawtenstall Farmers’ 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 and leaves with the fruit, creating authenticity, natural and interesting stall displays for their products.

You can nourish yourself on this fresh produce that is minimally processed, and picked fresh, to enjoying an amazing array of produce that you don’t see in your average Supermarket: red carrots, purple broccoli and green garlic. A regular trip to a Farmers’ Market is one of the best ways to connect with where your food comes from. Meeting and talking to Farmers and food artisans is a great opportunity to learn more about how and where food is produced.

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.

Few grocery stores or Supermarkets will give you tips on how to cook the ingredients you buy, but Farmers and artisans at the Farmers’ Market are often passionate cooks with plenty of free advice about how to cook the foods they are selling. The organic nature of the food makes it tastier, and cheaper than buying at the Supermarket. You will eat seasonally, fresh and ripe.

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, a refreshing change.

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.

From savouring produce at the peak of freshness to meeting the people who grow your food, there are countless reasons to support Farmers’ Markets:

The wind on your face, the sun on your skin – ok, it’s Rawtenstall, rain on your head – but you talk with a local Farmers and merchants about the size and taste of their fruit and vegetables, as you pop a slice in your mouth. After tasting several different varieties, you choose your favourite one, full of nutrition, walking away with a great memory of the conversation in your mind…

Or…

You stand shivering in the freezer section at your local Supermarket, your eyes begin to glaze over from the halogen lights and the neon-coloured cardboard boxes containing substances claimed to be fresh food products. You decide on the one with the least amount of additives and make your way to the self-check-out line, excited to get in your car and out of the place.

Rawtenstall’s monthly Farmers’ Market is set around a cobblestone promenade exposed to the winds coming in from the Pennines, fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and bakery stalls of every flavour 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 festival of entrepreneurial life.

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