Counting Farmers Market Visitors and Customers in 2022
By: Darlene Wolnik, FMC Program Director Posted On: July 21, 2022
Since a few markets and network leaders have reached out to me recently about how to count visitors, I thought I’d revisit the subject. Counting visitors can be tricky for many markets since they usually use open lots or parking areas with lots of entrances for shoppers to come in and have few (if any) staff on hand to do the work. So, reviewing a lot of methods can be helpful in choosing the one that best fits your market’s situation.
I say “revisit” because I wrote this resource that covers counting using a handheld clicker device. The paper covers the 3 usual methods of using those devices, including what is often called a count. FMC staff did a test of all 3 counts (a “full” count, a “sample” count and a “walkthrough”) at the wonderful Crossroads Farmers Market in Tacoma Park, MD and the experience is recorded in that paper. That paper also covers what— at that time— was a promising technology for market counting: the ping counter.
Ping Counter Pilot
The ping counter counts the number of “pings” that mobile phones in a defined range are sending out, looking for a signal nearby. After that paper was published, we actually did a few pilots with the ping counters but found that they were not accurate enough in their current design to use them or to underwrite the development of the method. We still hope that someone comes back to the idea; anything that that reduces the time commitment of undertaking a physical count is something that FMC is interested in exploring. So, if you are a developer and have a product like this, send me an email.
Using clickers and counting everyone entering all day (the full count), counting everyone entering for 20 minutes every hour (the sample count) or walking through and counting everyone in the market at a specific time each hour (walkthrough) all have their drawbacks. The main ones being that a) it requires added volunteers on that day to do the counting, b) it’s difficult for markets that have lots of entrances and/or c) some of the methods may result in numbers that will not be close enough to the actual number. Still, any method that is done consistently will offer a market some data on trends during the market day. As you will see in our collection resources on the Metrics Guide site, we recommend building a small data collection team that does a full count 2 or 3 times a season. The result is excellent data, and the volunteers usually have an enjoyable time, which may even lead them to be more eager about doing more data collection for the market!
For data collection, seasons can also be thought of as the span of a representative sample of data. For example, within a 4 month long summer season, setting a data season over the 4 middle weeks to collect data may work very well to get a number that represents summer vendor and shopping behaviors. Collecting data during the spike week and the quietest week of the market season might also do the trick. If your market operates year-round, maybe the first market day of the month is your data collection season. Additionally, counting everyone who comes the week before and during the week of National Farmers Market Week, and sharing that with FMC and your state association allows us to measure its impact. When choosing a method, do try to fit the level of staffing and work to your situation. For instance, if you are not able to attract volunteers or pay collectors, then using the full entry count at a market with a lot of entrances may be more difficult. Plan your data season as precisely as you plan your market season, using the 4M approach:
How does this activity correspond to your mission (If your purpose is to expand sustainable agriculture, does your counting method help with that?)
How does this activity correspond to your management structure? (Do you have a large board of non-vendors? Could they help collect data?)
What messaging is necessary to get community participation and buy in on data collection? (Your market community needs to prepare for data collection day too, so make sure they know how and when to do their part.)
Finally, measuring how it went for the collectors and also for vendors, shoppers and neighbors is vital (You will get good feedback for the next data season.)
The main point — it is rarely necessary to collect data on every single market day of the year. Of course, if you can, it is certainly a better data set. But whatever you choose, plan for it according to your 4Ms.
As to how one does the counts using the clickers, you can find info on our farmersmarketmetrics.guide site which is a support site for those who are account holders for the Metrics software and has free resources and ideas for any market doing data collection. Look under “Visitor Count” to find the how-to and the templates. Please also share any of your data collection resources with FMC and we’d be happy to credit your market.
Sticker count: This works great for a small market with a solid social media following. Tell shoppers and vendors in the weeks leading up to the day that they will take a sticker (“Be Counted at our Market” or “You Count at our Market”.) Have the stickers and instructions at the market booth. If your market team sees anyone without a sticker, ask if they received one yet (may have just fallen off); if they haven’t, ask if you can hand them one or affix it to their lapel or hat. (If they still refuse it, just take their sticker off the sheet and pitch it.) At the end of the day, count how many stickers were given out.
(Tip: Since most markets don’t count children as shoppers in this exercise, have a different kids stickerto give out because kids will want one when they see others wearing them!)
Anchor Vendor Count: While this method hasn’t been tested widely, it has promise for very small markets with 1 or 2 fruit/vegetable vendors or with an extremely popular vendor. Station someone at the anchor vendor booth and have them count every visitor and every shopper of that vendor. If possible, the collector might be able to help the vendor bag, set up or take down the tables. Plus, the vendor will be happy to have the data too.
Car Count: For markets that have a dedicated parking area with few entrances and very little walk-in traffic, stationing someone at the parking lot to count the cars is ideal. The Champlain Islands Farmers Market in VT has used this method for their Saturday market; not only did they count the cars, they counted how many people were in each car and also what state the car was from (as it is near a state boundary).
There is another style of counter for vehicles; some municipalities have access to them for checking on traffic flow.
Transaction Data: While not tested widely, this idea is for those markets that have a centralized system to process cards (debit, credit, and/or benefit dollars) to assess the percentage of those using the card processing to estimate overall numbers. In doing so, it counts shoppers, not just visitors.
A market can also just use the transaction numbers for each market day to assess credit, debit or benefit dollars individually as their own data points.
The method may be to ask vendors what percentage of shoppers use different kinds of tokens at their booth or to do a Rapid Market Assessment Dot Survey or a Bean Poll over a data season asking shoppers what currencies they use and assess what percentage averages out.
Lastly, remember that despite all the benefits of metrics, numbers alone will not give you a complete analysis of your market’s impact, nor are they as objective as one has been led to believe. So, as you dive into data and think about how to count those who attend, start planning how to measure the impact your market has on the systems around it that guide it, impel it and restrict its potential.