Weekly Newsletter: What Is Smart Markets?

Dear Shoppers,

We have so many new shoppers signing up for the newsletter each week now that I thought you might like a little introduction to Smart Markets, Inc. I founded this operation in the winter of 2008 after working as a volunteer market master for the Fairfax County farmers’ market operation for five years. I had also shopped at my neighborhood market at Nottoway Park for almost its entire lifespan throughout my catering career. So I knew something about what I wanted at a market and what others seemed to want. But I also saw a wasted resource because the County feels no obligation to support successful or interesting or fun markets — we were told repeatedly in Market Manager meetings that their only obligation was to provide locations for markets so that county residents could shop if they wished to. They actually said that they did not care whether the vendors were successful.

But I did, and it bothered me that so many of the farmers were forced into selling at 8–10 markets a week to make a living when little more than one percent of the residents of Fairfax County were shopping at the markets. I was lucky to know the ladies in D.C. who had started and still operate most of the good markets there, and I was mentored along the way by Robin Schuster of Markets and More. who had worked with Nina Planck before Nina took off to open markets in London and New York. I also read a lot by some of the experts in this field, mostly based in academia, who because they are committed to programs that support small farming pay attention to how good farmers’ markets operate across the country. And there are some great tutorials out there as well as advice on the legal and marketing issues that we face when we operate markets. And, last but not least, I was encouraged by the farmers and other vendors I worked with at the county markets.

There is no need for me to go any further into my motivation — you can read our mission statement on our website — but there are some things you might not know about how we operate. I work hard to bring a professional perspective to what may seem to be a frivolous endeavor. We are very serious about our rules and regulations, and we are tough negotiators when it comes to securing the best sites that are conducive to creating the best markets. We also support our vendors in numerous ways including offering assistance with display and marketing, pricing, product development and other tips for making more money! We seek out and develop other opportunities for our vendors to sell their products and to buy from each other. And we promote a team spirit at our markets to the extent that we do not tolerate behavior that undercuts any other vendor or undermines the team spirit we work so hard to nurture.

We charge less than most other professional markets in this area for participation, and all of the fees we collect go toward support of the markets. There are no salaried employees, but we do pay for professional Web page management and for the services of three market managers to enable me to spend more time on market development. All but three percent of what you spend stays with the vendor; what they share with Smart Markets pays for our insurance, printing, banners and signs, and music and other performances at our markets. All other support services are supplied by volunteers who are central to our success thus far.

We now operate seven markets in Virginia and Maryland, and we are looking forward to returning to the George Mason University campus in September and hopefully starting a market on the University of Maryland–College Park campus too. Next year I hope to focus on building the markets that we have rather than opening many more. There are three ways that we can grow our business — by opening new markets, by expanding the number of vendors in the existing markets and by increasing the traffic in all of them. We are still scratching the surface of the potential here in Fairfax County, and there are many more people who deserve to know how easy it is to shop local and shop healthy in this area.

I hope to spend more of our time and effort next year on the education and outreach components of our mission to fulfill that promise that I made to the farmers three years ago — that I want to help them be able to make a good living doing four really good markets a week rather than ten mediocre ones. Then we can begin to open some new markets for the other farmers who will be standing in line to sell at Smart Markets, Inc!

Thank you all for your support over the past three years — for coming out weekly to buy from our small, local businesses — some of whom I know will soar one day and leave us behind. I am encouraged by the belief that there will always be new and unique artisans to bring into the fold. And hopefully, the farmers will always be with us. That’s the whole point!

See you at the market — every week!