sealPurdue News

September 1996

Markets flourish with vendor, citizen input

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- There are all kinds of urban farmers' markets. Some sell asparagus or apples; others sell Scandinavian flatbread or German summer sausage. But there's a common bond among the most successful urban markets -- they're run by vendors and citizens, not by bureaucrats.

The importance of vendor administration is among the findings from a study led by Glenn Sullivan and Kent Schuette of Purdue University's Department of Horticulture. Their research team surveyed 12 urban markets in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. The team identified several other keys to the success or failure of urban markets:

Nearly 2,000 licensed urban markets nationwide, not including "tailgate markets," could benefit from Sullivan and Schuette's work. Cities trying to revitalize their downtown areas and small-scale farmers looking for new opportunities also could benefit. Performance models developed from the survey results should help urban markets in communities of all sizes.

Sullivan, a horticulture professor, says the more farmers in a market, the better. The competition generates specialization, which appeals to and draws in consumers.

"People go to the market because they can shop at several places in one stop -- like the mall," Sullivan says. "Urban markets need to be active and dynamic, presenting customers with a full spectrum of purchase decisions."

That dynamic results in what Sullivan calls "spirit of place." He says there's no question that spirit of place is key to attracting customers and making an urban market successful. However, he adds, proper planning is necessary. For instance, complementary businesses are important.

"If a market is tucked in between a gas station and a factory, it's not attractive," Sullivan says. "But the proper mix of complementary businesses helps breathe life into an inner-city market, and it becomes an engine for community development."

In other words, market survival and neighborhood survival are connected.

Mary Carpenter manages the 24-year-old Dane County Farmers' Market in Madison, Wis., one of the markets studied by Sullivan and Schuette. The market was named one of the top five U.S. urban markets in the August 1995 issue of Better Homes and Gardens. Carpenter says there have always been markets in Madison, but as the city changed, each one went out of business.

"They died with the neighborhood," she says.

Cincinnati, Ohio, is trying to overcome a similar problem with its Findlay Market, another subject of the Purdue survey. The 143-year-old market is in a historic, inner-city area that was formerly an old German neighborhood called "Over the Rhine." The historic brick, masonry and cast-iron structure is surrounded by three- and four-story commercial structures about eight blocks from downtown. It's out of the way for many shoppers, and these days the neighborhood is incorrectly perceived as unsafe, according to market manager Tom Jackson.

The city is out to reform Findlay Market's image with a multi-faceted "master business plan," based partly on recommendations from Purdue. Jackson says the plan is to improve parking and extend the facility's walls to make room for more vendors and create festival space and seating. A trolley service may be added for use by downtown business people on their lunch breaks.

Revitalization will create opportunities for farmers and jobs for local residents. It also will help rejuvenate the neighborhood, according to Schuette, an architect and urban planner.

He says along with "spirit of place," physical space is an important consideration. The layout of the market should provide a circulation pattern that encourages easy and equal access to any given section of vendors. Schuette describes the ideal urban market as seemingly chaotic, but really highly organized.

At Findlay Market, accessibility is a problem Jackson says should be remedied with the improved parking included in the city's revitalization plan. He says growers stopped bringing their goods to the market when urban sprawl ate up the space they used to pull their trucks in. The new plan will allow plenty of room for them to pull up and unload their produce.

In comparison, Madison's Dane County Farmers' Market is an outdoor, European-style market, where vendors simply park along the streets in an eight-block square around the state Capitol. There are no buildings, just the occasional canopy erected by vendors. Every Saturday from May to November, 15,000 customers conveniently shop from the sidewalks between the 200 farmer booths and the grassy, tree-lined and flower-bedecked Capitol grounds.

"There's no shelter, and it's not air conditioned unless the wind is blowing," says Carpenter, who's been a vendor for 13 years and market manager for almost six.

"We have a friendly market," she says. "The grower-vendors know their customers, and people know the vendors and are vendor loyal."

Carpenter says Dane County's consumers value the fact that they can buy direct from the vendor and can find a range of prices and products. Everything sold at the Dane County Market must be produced by the vendors -- there's no secondhand wholesaling, Schuette says -- and customers like being able to ask the growers about their produce. Vendors and customers look forward to seeing each other every week, Carpenter says. Schuette calls this "connectedness."

Sullivan and Schuette have found that one-third of urban market customers shop for fresh produce at a reasonable price. Another third shop at the markets for unique or quality products. They know and trust the grower and aren't concerned about price. The other third go to urban markets as "local tourists" for a taste of nostalgia.

The Dane County Farmers' Market offers seasonal crops and has a strong organic component, according to Carpenter. It has about 200 vendors at any given time; almost 400 vendors from 36 Wisconsin counties participate in the market each year. It's run by an eight-member board of vendors.

"We have the full gamut of Wisconsin products," Carpenter says. "I can't think of any Wisconsin product not sold."

But customers at the year-round Findlay Market may be looking for something a little different. Jackson says they shop for ethnic and prepared foods, as well as organic and other fresh farm produce. He says the 47 full-time and 15 part-time vendors offer meat, poultry, cheese, seafood, spices, coffee, bakery items, jams, produce and bedding plants.

Shoppers looking for the nearest urban market to fill their needs can access a World Wide Web site created by Schuette, which lists urban markets nationwide. The URL is <>

Pumpkins or flatbread, apples or summer sausage -- the keys Sullivan and Schuette discovered should help urban markets such as Madison's to lock in success and Cincinnati's to unlock the door to a successful future.

Sources: Glenn Sullivan, (765) 494-1313; e-mail,
Kent Schuette, (765) 494-1324; e-mail,
Writer: Andrea McCann, (765) 494-8406; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A color photo is available of a vendor at the Dane County Farmers' Market in Madison, Wis. Ask for the photo called Markets/Schuette or download here.

* To the Purdue News and Photos Page