Connecting the Dots of Back Office Systems

By Darlene Wolnik, marketumbrella.org

Kathleen O'Malley of managemymarket.com demonstrates the service at a market manager workshop.

Every market is unique.

Every market can learn ‘best practices’ from other markets.

When it comes to back office systems, both of these ring true. And since few workshops cover these types of management skills, it is left to quick conversations between markets to compare systems.

The biggest complications come with the advent of debiting machines, “third party processors,” and tokens. What had been a simple apron for cash sales of merchandise or drinks has often become a multi-leveled debit and credit operation.  And until they invent a solar-powered, rainproof cash register it will probably remain difficult.

In order to decide what is needed for your market, you will need to know:

What is necessary for you to do (according to your financial person)?

What is useful information for grantors, sponsors, and potential partners?

How much staff time is needed to manage the systems?

How will your vendors accept this new system?

What do shoppers need to know?

Do you currently have the skills to run the system you want?

What will you need to add in the foreseeable future?

How will you pay for it?

Recently, there have been businesses offering office support to markets for a fee. ManageMyMarket.com is one of those businesses: a for-profit business that came to markets by request when the Portland Farmers Market asked a local web-based company to help run their rent collection system. Manage My Market staff is designing a system to have online vendor registration, updatable vendor product list, online scheduling (both market side and vendor side), tracking charges and payments, bulk emails, and soon, accounting services.

Even within the flea market world, there are systems for booth rental and services: Booth Tracker is well known in the industry and the testimonials from markets in every corner of the U.S. attest to their services for collecting fees.

At my organization, marketumbrella.org, we are building our own back office system that we call Crescent Wrench. Crescent Wrench allows our market staff to enter vendors’ rent (as they pay in advance) so that only paid vendors show up on that day’s market map. It also acts as the market database, and feeds information to our website so that current information is available to shoppers. In addition to the rent collection system, our financial director has designed a market system for our token transactions. Managing four separate tokens (as we have $1.00 and $5.00 tokens for both debit/credit sales and EBT), as well as token-handling fees and a voluntary donation fund called Crescent Fund means more controls needed to be put in place. Add our merchandise and coffee sales to that list and we have a pretty lengthy training!

However, even with the influx of fee-based services or markets designing new systems, the norm remains simple spreadsheet management. Many markets use Excel spreadsheets for keeping track of rent collected and sales of merchandise and keep a separate tally for the token system per market. Cynthia Torres, the Director of the Colorado Farmers’ Market Association is hoping that a proposed feasibility study will help them see what their markets need in the realm of recordkeeping as well as strategic planning, and in some cases, discover innovations already being used that can be shared.

The FMC website has a few examples of spreadsheets that are very simple and useful.  What may be the next step is for networks of markets to seek out bookkeeping training to build systems that connect all of the dots.

Do you have an innovative bookkeeping system designed for markets? Share it with marketumbrella.org and Farmers Market Coalition by submitting a sample spreadsheet or link to the Resource Library.