Selling On The Roadside

A farmer talks about his roadside stand and selling produce on the roadside.

by Sue Weaver
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

As basic as peddling pumpkins from a pickup truck or as elaborate as hawking produce, crafts and country paraphernalia of all shapes, sorts and sizes from fancy year-round markets, roadside stands are a producer’s best bet for bypassing the middleman and making immediate, cash sales. But getting involved in roadside marketing isn’t as simple as most folks think.

Oh, there’s lots to be said for direct farm marketing. Better prices for your goods, control over pricing and prompt, direct payment head the list. Stands create jobs for family and friends and small-scale ventures suit retired gardeners and craftspersons to a “t.” Producer meets consumer head-on; feedback is instantaneous when solicited. And it costs little to break into roadside retailing when marketers are content to start small and gradually expand.

However, depending on city, state and circumstances, roadside vendors must comply with zoning and licensing restrictions, fire and police ordinances, health and sanitation codes, and weights and measures specifications. Liability insurance is a must-have. And long hours, sometimes spent under a snapping canopy in chilly, high winds or in the open under a blazing sun, draw producers away from other farm chores.

Is there a roadside market in your future? Think hard before you make up your mind.

Location, Location, Location

In 1994, Ohio State University published “Ohio Consumer Opinions of Roadside Markets and Farmer’s Markets” based on a random telephone survey of 500 Ohio households.

Fifty-five percent of those surveyed shopped at a roadside market during the targeted 12 months (August 1992 through August 1993) and of that group, 64 percent shopped at a roadside market at least four times.

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However, only 34 percent drove more than 15 minutes to reach those markets; rural and small town dwellers were loathe to drive even that far. While 45 percent of non-shoppers concluded farm markets are too far away; 55 percent said they would patronize a farm market if one was conveniently located near their homes (not their workplaces). The bottom line: you must set up shop close to customers if your business is to thrive.

Studies concur that successful roadside stands are located on well-traveled highways within 10 to 15 miles of an urban center or tourist attraction. They’re situated on the right-hand side of a straight, level stretch of highway. Easy access is a must.

Stands adjacent to garden plots or orchards are considered more “farm-like,” thus better, because customers expect that country touch. Ninety percent of consumers interviewed as part of the Ohio survey believe they receive higher-quality produce directly from a farm, and 88 percent prefer to buy fruit and vegetables from the producer. Locating your stand on or adjacent to a farm can be good for business.

Setting up within easy driving distance of another stand is usually a boon for both. Buyers travel farther when they can shop at several markets in the same locale. It’s wise to scope out the other guy’s offerings before deciding what you’ll grow. If he markets exclusively sweet corn, producing complimentary items such as tomatoes, lettuce and peppers could be an expedient move.

Making Your Stand

Unless you have previous experience direct-marketing farm-grown edibles, it’s wise to ease into roadside selling. Peddling sweet corn from the back of an SUV or melons from a pickup parked in the shade mark simple, successful beginnings, as do veggies displayed on picnic tables under a colorful canopy or sold from bare bones, homemade stands. Renovated barns, sheds, one-room schoolhouses or grange halls make fine roadside markets for larger-scale entrepreneurs.

More than pumpkins and lettuce change hands via roadside stands. Antiques, crafts, flowers and bedding plants, small pets such as bunnies, fresh eggs, Christmas trees and wreaths, maple syrup, smoked fish, honey, hay and hand-me-downs all make their way to roadside stands.

Whatever you choose, strive to present a rural image. Your stand’s outward appearance and decor should shout “country!” And make it stand out. Park a single impressive (not junky) antique farm implement outside, paint your building an unusual hue, swathe it in colorful murals, or affix a huge inflatable apple, pumpkin, or watermelon to its roof. Traveling at 50 mph, motorists have three scant seconds to size up a roadside attraction, so do what you can to make your market visible.

If you build or renovate an indoor structure, allow for consumer comfort. Customers crammed into cramped, close quarters often flee without buying. Five foot or wider aisles are an absolute must. You’ll need a readily identifiable, accessible checkout station and a cold storage area if your produce requires one.

How you display your goods will depend on what you’re selling and where, but country containers such as half barrels or castoff milk pails for gourds and apples or an old wagon stacked high with melons adds to the country effect.

An important and frequently overlooked element: simple, eye-catching signs. A University of Tennessee survey of roadside market shoppers indicates 74 percent learn of a stand’s location by simply following signs (another 24 percent via word of mouth; only 2 percent responded to media ads).

Primary signs should be placed one-half mile from the stand in both directions and erected following applicable municipal or state regulations. Be creative but spare with your design. Basic, large letters (nothing frilly, nothing complex) approximately one-fifth as wide as they are high work best; black on light backgrounds is easily seen. Fruit or veggie cut-outs capture the motorist’s eye. Your business name and logo along with appropriate mileage are enough. Or simply: “Sweet Corn, 1¼2 miles ahead.”

Post your entrance and exit with large, legible signs. Tuck attractive signs amongst your produce. People buy more plumcots and pawpaws if they know what they are; many folks are too embarrassed to ask.

Don’t settle for a single driveway; for safety’s sake, separate entrances and exits are essential. Plenty of safe, level, convenient parking is also a must. Park customers beside or behind your building, where their vehicles won’t block motorists’ views of the stand and its outdoor displays. Don’t forget to provide special parking (including signage) for handicapped consumers.

In today’s litigious society, substantial liability insurance is a dire necessity. But still, play safe. Dry, debris-free floors should be the norm. Keep produce up off the floors, too. Childproof all displays; toppling watermelons and shattered cider jugs spell “lawsuit.” If your entrance is a step-up, post a warning. And keep your stand meticulously vermin-free. Sending a hitchhiker (or its droppings) home with customers leads to dissension, especially if someone gets sick.

Every Growing Thing

What to sell? That depends. Some producers sell a single major product, others tend to go whole hog. The selling season for a single crop may span just a few short weeks; some sellers encompass the growing season and beyond by incorporating multiple products. Whatever you choose, be fairly certain you can produce enough of a product to make marketing it worthwhile.

According to the Ohio study, 70 percent of roadside shoppers purchased sweet corn. Other favorites were tomatoes (66 percent), melons (30 percent), apples (18 percent), beans (16 percent) and peaches (13 percent).

A Vermont study divides purchases into categories: vegetables, fruits and miscellaneous. Sweet corn still heads the vegetables list (85.9 percent), followed by tomatoes (61.4 percent), peppers (46.3 percent) and cucumbers (44.3 percent). Apples top the fruit class at 90 percent, trailed by peaches (82.3 percent), cantaloupe (66.5 percent) and strawberries (58.2 percent). Cider (72.1 percent), pumpkins (49 percent), honey (48 percent) and gourds (25.6 percent) lead the miscellaneous group. All major studies agree: sweet corn, tomatoes and melons are likely to sell.

While they cite flavor as their prime requisite, customers expect to buy picture-perfect produce, too. Whatever you offer must be sparkling clean and blemish free or plainly marked as “seconds” and sold for considerably less. Produce that isn’t pleasing to the eye but is an unexpected treat to the taste buds—some varieties of antique apples and pears—is best marketed by providing free samples. Displays must be constantly policed and bruised or spoiled items removed and discarded. Chipped ice displays and refrigeration best preserve produce quality, but simply keeping items out of the hot sun helps a lot.

Keeping Time

Truck farming and roadside selling requires a world of time and commitment. Are you game? Do you enjoy meeting the public—even after spending early morning hours in the garden before you do? Can you patiently answer what feels like endless, silly questions and field complaints? If you can’t, can you find and hire reliable employees who will?

Roadside stands are frequently crewed by family members. Are yours willing and able to report? The United States Department of Labor regulates how long kids under 16 can work; while the rules are less stringent for your own kids, extended family such as underage nieces, nephews and cousins must hold valid work permits.

The sort of employees who man your stand have a dramatic impact on sales. Customers appreciate friendly, courteous cashiers who are attentive without being overwhelming and who politely field questions about your farm and the produce you sell. Clerks with cell phones attached to their ears, bored teenagers, and anyone conducting business with snarl or snit, chase away business—big time.

On Display

While someone selling pumpkins under a shade tree needn’t be as design-conscious as a year-round indoor marketer, presentation always counts. The pumpkin seller could erect a scarecrow and corn-shock display, and showcase his finer fruit at the scarecrow’s feet. Or he might don the scarecrow outfit himself, or dress as a “farm boy” with a picturesque straw hat, overalls and bare feet. “Country” sells!
To please the public and spur more sales, savvy stand marketers employ basic display techniques like these:

  • Create eye appeal by factoring color contrast into arrangements. Flank deep green broccoli with white cauliflower and dusky red cabbage. Break up uniform masses of green produce with beds of red and orange using radishes, colored bell peppers, tomatoes or beets. Arrange blood-red Winesaps between Granny Smiths and Yellow Delicious apples.
  • Group same-use items together: salad fixings, green beans with new potatoes, cilantro, tomatillos and chiles.
  • Spread power items (the ones that draw consumers to your market, such as sweet corn, melons, apples and tomatoes) throughout your stand so customers shop the whole store. Place impulse goods (honey, cider, walnuts) near those items so buyers see them. Impulse purchases usually account for more than half of total sales.
  • Stock attractive, inexpensive baskets and provide fluffy chopped straw or excelsior so consumers can create their own gift baskets on the spot.
  • Provide handouts (inexpensive speed printing works fine) listing nutritional data, recipes and trivia relating to various fruits and vegetables, especially unfamiliar or popular items.
  • Encourage sampling. Keep nibbling displays scrupulously clean and stocked with your juiciest, rich fruit and crispiest, fresh snacking vegetables.

Making Bread

While customers demand quality goods, they also expect prices to be somewhat less at a roadside stand. When setting your prices, consider quality (including higher charges for organically grown produce), competitors’ prices (scoped out at other nearby stands and area supermarkets), supply and demand, location, customer income and your own production costs and operating expenses.

Clearly price every item. Consumers are often reluctant to ask. Provide appropriate signage or mark individual items. Shoppers abhor surprises at the checkout counter.

Market researchers claim pricing in fives (45¢, 75¢, $1.25) is considered more farm-like than standard pricing, thus especially appropriate for roadside stands.

If you sell by weight, you must use state inspected, sealed scales and conform to weights and measures regulations. To avoid the hassle, consider unit selling (a dozen ears of corn, a half bushel of apples, one turnip) instead. It’s considered more farm-like too.

Invest in a cash register, or use quality calculators, and make certain your cashiers know how to count change; it’s surprising how many of us don’t. Keep only enough cash in the till to make change. Keep the drawer or cash box closed between transactions and remove it completely when you lock up at night.

Taking Care Of Business

And finally, before setting up shop—even if it’s vending watermelons out of your pickup or strawberries from a card table—make certain you’re legal and your insurance covers any activity you’re likely to engage in.

City and county planning commissions can advise regarding zoning and licensing requirements. To prevent unnecessary unpleasantness, mobile marketers should check with local police before they set up to sell.

You’ll need a state retail license to collect sales tax. To find out how to apply for one, visit the Google search engine and type the following in the Search box, using quotation marks as shown (but substitute your state in place of Arkansas): “sales tax” license Arkansas

You must also keep accurate records and pay state and federal income taxes. Ask a bookkeeper or tax accountant to advise you.

In 1980, there were 15,000 roadside stands in the United States. By 1995, that figure almost doubled and it continues to grow. Will yours boost the number in 2005?

This article first appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of Hobby Farms magazine. 

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