The theme of merchandising refers to the development of the product mix, which is different for each farm shop in the study. While all the farm shops interviewed are located on a working farm, differentiation is important, while simultaneously maintaining the perception of sourcing local. Most farm shops must supplement their inventory to provide a well-rounded selection that satisfies both the local markets and the tourists. Therefore, vegetable farms must find meat, cheese and bread in order to provide a one-stop shopping experience. Local patrons may need ingredients for a home cooked meal, while tourists may want a full picnic lunch to take on an outing.
It’s kind of having a balance between not looking like every other farm shop in the area but also having the things that people accept and what they like. It’s also the branding and the store and all that, you really have to be very ‘on it’ in terms of stock levels, how much to have, and to know what people are looking for. (Farm shop #1)
Defining local is also a struggle for the farm shops. Most businesses work within a radius, sourcing as close to their farm as possible and moving outward to find the best products. The core distance was 30 miles, but some products were considered local if they were from anywhere in England. The key concern was avoiding imported products. Furthermore, knowing where their vendors sourced their ingredients was important.
We source local English wine, but some people expect a bit of gourmet, so there is pressure to carry French wines. We carried buffalo mozzarella, but it was from Italy, so now we carry a local mozzarella, but it doesn’t come from buffalo milk. It’s a trade-off to stay true to what your customers want and maintaining your integrity as an outlet for local produce. (Farm shop #2)
Sourcing local is defined differently between urban and suburban customers. Suburban customers seem to prefer defining local by distance, whereas urbanites look for British themed and British sourced products. For example, Londoners often look for rare breed meats, which cannot be sourced in quantity within a 30-mile radius of the urban area (Farm shop #3). Coming to the suburbs expands that radius, where neighbouring areas to the farm shop have the land requirements for cattle raising (a land intensive product). However, artisan produce, such as processed meats and cheeses, can be produced in the urban and suburban areas, where the inputs are imported from the rural areas, but the food is made locally. Finding a balance, therefore, is challenging.
We have award winning sausages that we sell at Borough Market in London. It’s almost 100 miles from our location outside Leicester to central London, but the Londoners think this is local meat and they love our product. I can’t sell it on the west side of Leicester because that’s 15 miles away and there are other meat producers over there that are closer, maybe more local. (Farm shop #4)
However, travelling to suburban farm shops is also an activity, different from buying at the urban markets. Some urbanites may travel a path frequently (such as commuting or visiting family on weekends) and have a farm shop that they frequent. Others will plan an outing that will include a regular stop at a farm shop. For example, the Chilterns, a rural mountain range known for hiking and biking, is located 30 miles from central London. The area between these two points is clearly suburban (e.g. Hemel Hampstead, Reading, Maidenhead) and some of the farm shops interviewed are located in this area. As one manager states:
We do find a lot of our customers are from London. Our raw meat customers make the pilgrimage up here and have a chat and a look at what we have. And they may only do it once, but many do it regularly. They want to come talk to the farmer and discuss the harvest or whatever. If their potatoes are full of lichens or someone’s garden has got live butterflies, they know they can come and have a chat about it. (Farm shop #6)
Since the visit to a farm shop is experiential in nature, all the farm shops interviewed offer activities and events to encourage visitation. Some have small petting zoos where children can interact with sheep, goats or rabbits. Others have opened a cafe, where parents can enjoy lunch while children play. On weekends, when visitation is the highest, there may be pottery classes, falconry displays or cooking classes.
Yeah, events, definitely because it’s easier to market a special event than it is something that’s permanent. I don’t know if it’s just something about the psychology and something about limited time but you’re much more likely to have success, to have people coming out and people buying on the day of an event. But even things like going to the farm and being a part of the harvest or being a part of an activity where you can get people out, I think that’s the way to go and get the younger traveller to stay as well as having a good experience. (Farm shop #3)
Merchandising for suburban farm shops is a time intensive process as different customers define local food in different ways and seek different experiences at the farm shop. Locals are looking for product; visitors are looking for experiences. However, almost all the managers recognize that their customers are either urban or suburban dwellers. Their interactions with the rural come through the farm shops’ supply chain.