Marketing & Sales Series: Pt 1 ~ Comparing Your Sales Channels

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With the ongoing popularity of our Water & Drought Management and Labor & Worker Safety series, we’re excited to announce our next two-month series of blog features about Marketing & Sales. 

This new series will be a mix of practical resources created by our partners combined with farmer stories and useful tips. We are pulling information from branding experts, food safety and value-added food specialists, experienced vegetable and livestock farmers, and farms of all sizes developing their marketing and sales strategy.


To kick things off, we’re discussing the importance of choosing the right mix of sales channels for your operation. There are many issues to consider and many different channels to get your product to the final end-consumer.

Read on as we help you think about your strategy, how to choose the channels that will work for you, and – most importantly – maximize your profit!

Balancing Multiple Channels

In general, selling direct-to-consumers is the most profitable channel because you keep the entire final purchase price. However, the larger your production volume, the more difficult it can be to move all of your product as it is harvested.

Selling through wholesale channels may seem appealing because you can move a lot of product in one transaction, but there are administrative and regulatory costs and hurdles. This can be overwhelming at times, and – in general – smaller farms, that don’t have economies of scale, have profit margins that are much lower and it is often unsustainable.

Below is a graph created by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG), which illustrates the balancing act farmers go through in choosing the best mix of sales: direct-to-consumer, high-end wholesalers, or conventional wholesalers.

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 11.38.28 AM

SACOG: Regional Planning in the Sacramento Region, 2012

For 20-acre farms selling:

  • 100% direct-to-consumer,
    net revenue was $100,000.
  • 65% direct-to-consumer and 35% to high-end wholesaler,
    net revenue was $40,000.
  • 50% direct-to-consumer, 25% to high-end wholesaler, and 25% to conventional wholesaler,
    net revenue was $4,000.

For 60-acre farms selling:

  • 100% direct-to-consumer,
    net revenue was $300,000.
  • 65% direct-to-consumer and 35% to high-end wholesaler,
    net revenue was $175,000.
  • 50% direct-to-consumer, 25% to high-end wholesaler, and 25% to conventional wholesaler,
    net revenue was $100,000.

Ultimately, choosing the right mix of sales channels (even if only one) should be based on sound financial planning and an understanding of your profit margins from each of your current channels. (For help with this type of planning, refer to the Business & Financial Planning Toolkit.)

On a more basic level, you should also ask yourself some easier questions as a general reality check:

  • To whom will I market?
  • Why will the market want my product?
  • How will the market know I have what it needs?
  • What will I market? What do you want to sell that will also make the biggest profit?
  • Would it make sense to pool product with neighboring farms to gain access to larger-volume markets?
  • Are there already existing local marketing channels (for example, Buy Fresh Buy Local) and/or a cooperative distribution coop I could join?

Below we’ve laid out a quick reference comparison of selling through each of the channels.  To see a more detailed chart, including u-pick and agritourism, click the links at the bottom.


Selling from Farm Stands

Common Risks:

  • Low customer turn-out
  • Liabilities of people on the farm

Deep Run Farms, Maryland

Prices & Profit:

  • Prices vary, but high profit potential
  • Location is a big factor in price

Level of Management Required:

  • Variable
  • Ranges from unstaffed honor system to staffed stores
  • Can advertise

Associated Costs:

  • Roadside signs and other advertising
  • Sales staff optional
  • Building, coolers, shelving

Regulations:


Selling via CSA

Common Risks:

  • Farmer commitment upfront
  • May be risky for a beginning farmer

csaPrices & Profit:

  • Price similar to wholesale, but profit generally higher

Level of Management Required:

  • High
  • Must sell memberships, utilize word of mouth networks & facilitate weekly pick-ups
  • Less post-harvest labor

Associated Costs:

  • Packaging materials
  • Advertising
  • Brochures
  • Recruiting new members
  • Labor

Regulations:

  • Membership agreement

Selling at Farmers Markets

Common Risks:

  • Weather dependent
  • Low customer turn out
  • Price competition
  • Leftover unsold product

Riverdog Farm at the Farmers Market

Prices & Profit:

  • Prices vary
  • Profits can be highest among channels
  • High labor costs
  • Better markets than others

Level of Management Required:

  • High
  • Long distance may need to be travelled
  • Hours dedicated to selling
  • Most markets run 3-5 hours

Associated Costs:

  • Market fees
  • Equipment
  • Travel
  • Hired labor

Regulations:

  • Need certified product sign at POS
  • Any processed food requires additional licensing & labeling per state laws

Selling to Restaurants

Common Risks:

  • Inconsistent orders
  • High expectations
  • Buyer back out
  • Slow to pay
  • Unpaid debts

Chef buying produce in Manhattan

Prices & Profit:

  • Prices vary
  • Usually higher than other wholesale prices
  • Depends on quality of product

Level of Management Required:

  • Variable
  • Constant communication typical
  • Requires a high level of service for the volume sold
  • Multiple deliveries

Associated Costs:

  • Washing, cooling & packing equipment for high volume
  • Delivery costs

Regulations:

  • Some packing standards if enforced by restaurant
  • Any processed food requires additional licensing and labeling

Selling to Institutions

Common Risks:

  • Inconsistent orders
  • Buyer back out

ca-el-monte-kitchen-variety

Prices & Profit:

  • Price is low to medium
  • Many institutions prefer to order through a distributor

Level of Management Required:

  • Low: Relatively quick and easy for volume sold
  • Can use schools for CSA & farm education programs marketing

Associated Costs:

  • Washing, cooling, packing & processing foods for high volume
  • Delivery costs

Regulations:

  • GAP certification
  • Food safety plan (HACCP)
  • Product liability insurance
  • Packing standards if enforced by institution
  • Any processed food requires additional licensing and labeling

Selling to Distributors

Common Risks:

  • Distributors call the shots
  • Inconsistent orders
  • Buyer back-out
Veritable Vegetable warehouse

Veritable Vegetable warehouse

Prices & Profit:

  • Prices are competitive, but generally low
  • Producer is a “price taker”

Level of Management Required:

  • Low
  • Relatively quick and easy for volume sold
  • Must meet packing standards
  • Very little marketing

Associated Costs:

  • Washing, cooling & packing equipment for high volume
  • Delivery costs

Regulations:


Selling to Grocery Stores

Common Risks:

  • Inconsistent orders
  • Buyer back out
Whole Foods produce

Whole Foods Market produce

Prices & Profit:

  • Price is low
  • Producer is a “price taker”
  • Wholesale prices are typically low
  • Know wholesale price before approaching outlet

Level of Management Required:

  • Low
  • Relatively quick and easy for volume sold
  • Must meet packing standards

Associated Costs:

  • Washing, cooling & packing equipment for high volume
  • Delivery costs

Regulations:

  • GAP certification
  • Food safety plan (HACCP)
  • Product liability insurance
  • Packing standards if enforced by store
  • Any processed food requires additional licensing and labeling

To view a more detailed chart comparing sales channels, including u-pick and agritourism, visit our Marketing & Sales 101 Info Sheet in the Marketing & Sales Toolkit.  In our Toolkit, you’ll find more info sheets, checklists, worksheets and recommended resources to help you develop a marketing and sales strategy.

We’re continuing to expand this toolkit, so stay tuned for more resources!

If you have questions or words of wisdom about your marketing channels, visit FarmsReach Conversations and post a question or comment!

If you have other great resources to share, get in touch!

3 Thoughts on “Marketing & Sales Series: Pt 1 ~ Comparing Your Sales Channels

  1. Jennifer Reynolds on July 25, 2014 at 12:40 pm said:

    The markets and revenue graph is very interesting. Can you provide any details on methodology/how data was compiled ? I had a brief look on SACOG website but couldn’t find the source.

    Thanks! Jennifer

  2. Eva Antczak on July 28, 2014 at 4:07 pm said:

    Hi Jennifer,
    Thanks for reading! This graph was provided to us by one of SACOG’s senior planners. You can contact him for more information:
    David Shabazian
    SUPERVISING SENIOR PLANNER
    Phone: 916-340-6231
    Email: dshabazian@sacog.org

    Hope this helps!

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