Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 46
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Lessons from the Midville Farmers' Market

A field study discovers powerful drivers for retail purchasing behavior.

A remarkable thing happens every Saturday at the Farmers' Market in Midville: Customers routinely overbuy, carrying away sacks of produce they'll never eat. They talk about it during subsequent visits, some lament their inability to control themselves, then they overbuy again.

Mary Ann McGrath, from Loyola, John Sherry, Jr., from Northwestern, and Deborah Heisley, from UCLA recently spent an entire 19-week season studying this market. They watched everything and stayed until everyone had gone home trying to learn the secrets of Midville. Here's what they found:

The Farmers' Market at Midville is an event, like theater, and the farmers are the characters . . . Average Joe Farmer, Enterprising Botanist, Aggressive Food Tycoon, Middle Aged Matriarch, Bumbling Novice, Ethnic Extended Family, and the Hobby Farmer. Each has a distinct appearance and plays a role to have fun and create fun for customers who thoroughly enjoy the show. Indeed, customers often assume roles themselves: city slickers getting in touch with their agrarian roots.

With nothing more than numbered patches of concrete and an open sky, these people come together once a week and create a community -- a gathering of villagers. It arouses a loyalty from participants that's expressed in dollars changing hands.

Customers are in no hurry at the Farmers' Market. They stroll in and walk the length of the market, then retrace their steps and buy themselves back to their starting points. Most of their time is spent visiting, and most conversations involve using the products. Farmers come armed with recipes and freely offer advice for preparing them, and customers often add recipes of their own.

Business owners should follow this example and find ways to help customers use their products, say McGrath and her associates. For example, grocery stores should create recipe corners in their produce sections: 3 stools, a counter, paper and pencils, a bulletin board, a few recipes using newly available produce signed by the produce manager, with invitations to add recipes and sign them.

They also urge us to duplicate farmers' markets with other kinds of products. They suggest retailers work with civic authorities to create regular village markets, possibly patterned after European markets. Owners would create booths and supply "characters" to staff them (perhaps the owners themselves) and strive to create the kind of experience observed at Midville.

They also believe we should use some of the display and promotion practices they observed. For example, Midville patrons are overwhelmed by sensual stimuli, the sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and textures of the market. Farmers display produce in overflowing baskets and offer samples to taste at every booth. Touching is encouraged and the odor of ripe fruit and flowers fills the air.

We should add sensual stimulation to our business settings, they say. Supermarkets which include bakeries should place them in the center of the store so the odor of baking bread will dominate. Every business should find ways to stimulate the senses in ways which will make their products and services more attractive.

The Midville Market also creates a strong sense of the passing of time. Every Saturday new signs appear: "Last day for strawberries", "First day for peaches." Produce appears and disappears simultaneously as the movement through the growing season creates boundaries for the produce. It creates an urgency of the slipping away of opportunity. There is also an urgency during each Saturday market. Everything for sale is in the display, and by 2 P.M. it will all be gone.

The farmers at the Midville Market are authentic characters with quirks who can best be likened to Charlie Chaplin's "little man" character, made immortal in silent movies of the 1920s. These direct sales people mock themselves, tell jokes, and display uncommon common sense. Customers develop a genuine affection for them.

Five unique qualities: community, helping customers use your products, sensual stimulation, movement through time, and authentic, "little man" direct sales people. The Midville Market emphasizes these qualities and the customers react with purchasing behavior business owners dream about.

Reference: McGrath, Mary Ann, John F. Sherry, Jr., and Deborah D. Heisley (1993) An Ethnographic Study of an Urban Periodic Marketplace: Lessons from the Midville Farmers' Market. Journal of Retailing, 69 (3), 280-318.

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