Understanding your Market, Part Two

Market research for sales people.

Yesterday, I started a Post on undertaking market research, from a practical point of view. It continues.

To me, there are very significant advantages in being a small business and one of the most important benefits is that it is so much easier to really know what your customers want.  Here’s a fascinating extract (p.139-140) from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers.

In 1889, Louis and Regina Borgenicht boarded an ocean liner in Hamburg bound for America.  Louis was from Galacia, in what was then Poland.  Regina was from a small town in Hungary.  They had been married only a few years and had one small child and a second on the way ……

….. They had enough money to last a few weeks, at best.

…..Louis and Regina found a tiny apartment on Eldridge Street, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, for $8 a month.  Louis took to the streets, looking for work.  He saw peddlers and fruit sellers and sidewalks crammed with pushcarts.  The noise and activity and energy dwarfed what he had known in the Old World.  He was first overwhelmed, then invigorated.  He went to his sister’s fish store on Ludlow Street and persuaded her to give him a consignment of herring on credit.  He set up shop on the sidewalk with two barrels of fish ….

….. By the end of the week, he had cleared &8.  By the second week, $13.  Those were considerable sums.  But Louise and Regina could not see how selling herring on the street would lead to a constructive business…..

….The answer came to him after five long days of walking up and down the streets of Lower East Side, just a he was about to give up hope.  He was sitting on an overturned box, eating a late lunch of the sandwiches Regina had made for him.  It was clothes. Everywhere around hi, stores were opening – suits, dresses, overalls, shirts, skirts, blouses, trousers, all made and ready to be worn.  Coming from a world where clothing was sewn at home by hand or made to order by tailors, this was a revelation.

Borgenicht took out a small notebook.  Everywhere he went, he wrote down what people were wearing and what was for sale – menswear, women’s wear, children’s wear.  He wanted to find a ‘novel’ item, something that people would wear that was not being sold in the stores.  For four more days he walked the streets.  On the evening of the final day as he walked toward home, he saw a half dozen girls playing hopscotch.  One of the girls was wearing a tiny embroidered apron over her dress, cut low in the front with a tie in the back, and it struck him, suddenly, that in his previous days of relentlessly inventorying the clothing shops of the Lower East Side, he had never seen one of those aprons for sale.

This is such a wonderful example of what understanding your market is all about. Louise was sufficiently smart to know that selling herrings, while lucrative in the short term, was not the long-term answer. He was sufficiently patient to watch and not jump to conclusions until the answer was clear. He was sufficiently tough to keep at it until he had his answer.

Now let’s jump back to Riverford Organics. Here are the words of Guy Watson.

a cooking odyssey Monday 26th October 2009

As you may have guessed, I am a vegetable bore. Twenty five years ago when I sowed my first leek I was fairly well adjusted but now my wife reckons I can turn any conversation to growing, cooking or eating veg within seconds. The box scheme was founded on the invigorating but dangerous assumption that my obsession was, at least partially, shared by customers.

This year I set out on a cooking odyssey to understand how others use or don’t use our vegetables. I cooked in village halls, in my bus, on the beach, in tents in Wales, on stage at WOMAD [World of Music, Arts and Dance, Ed] but most of all in customers’ homes. The experience has been fascinating (for a veg bore), frustrating (you are all so different) and humbling (there is life after vegetables).

My abiding impression is that most of you do share an enthusiasm for our veg, but that we need to make it easier for you to incorporate them into often busy lives. According to our customer survey last year only 5% of you find it really easy to use your box and 32% struggle. However fresh and tasty, local and minimally packaged, fairly traded and sustainably grown those carrots and beans are, if you are struggling to use them we will lose you in the end. (My underlining)

Our mission for the coming months is to make life with a box easier. There will be a few minor changes like less clods of mud but mostly we want to do this by cooking with you; both virtually and in person. We plan to team up with around 100 like-minded professional cooks who are inspired by our veg and on a par with our chef, Jane Baxter, when it comes to cooking them. They will work part-time with us and our customers, inspiring, teaching, demonstrating, creating recipes. We plan to run initiatives including affordable cookery classes and demos in homes, workplaces and community venues; lunch clubs, supper clubs and cooking clubs and a recipe exchange for customers. We have already run some pilot events and now we really want to get going.

get involved

Would you like to improve your cooking, help others improve theirs or do you know a cook who might want to work with us? If you’d like to get involved, email riverfordcooks@riverford.co.uk with your name, contact details, postcode and what you are interested in and we’ll let you know what is going on in your area.

The underlined sentence is the key. Without this insight, Guy would have had no way of knowing what was influencing his sales figures. And if sales were continuing to grow then this potential loss of business would have remained deeply hidden from sight. Only getting out there and mixing it with your customers revealed this problem, potentially a serious problem.

Tomorrow the concluding part of this three-part Post in which we examine some very practical ways of listening to the market.

By Paul Handover

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