For the past two summers, my 3 children and I have operated a table at a small local farmer’s market. Each week we work together to haul in eggs and produce, set up our display, and answer questions. We sell our products for about 3 hours each day.
The skills and experiences my children are learning now will serve them very well as adults, whether they go after their first job in a booming economy, try to make ends meet in a not-so-great one, or find themselves in a total economic collapse. Knowing the basics of starting and running a business is a great skill to have, for children and adults alike.
Here are a few of the skills we are learning:
Identify a product and a customer
Finding something to sell that people want to buy is as much a mind-set as a skill. And once kids figure out that selling stuff makes money, they’ll have all sorts of ideas! Encourage them to think through what’s realistic (para cord keychains, yes; dented Matchbox car collection, probably not). The next part is to identify who might want to buy what they want to sell. Again, ask them questions and have them work out a few options for themselves. Our main product is extra garden produce and eggs, but our customers range from friends and family, to neighbors, to dad’s co-workers, in addition to our farmer’s market exposure.
Create a display
It’s as simple as being able to spot a hole and fill it. When we sell our last several zucchini, for example, my son knows we need to rearrange our table or put out more of something else to fill the empty spot. At the beginning of the market, and occasionally throughout, we also go to the front of the table and see it from the customer’s viewpoint. Younger children can be given a specific instruction (“Here are 4 more tomatoes, will you arrange them in that empty spot?”) but older elementary and middle school children can easily be assigned this on-going task. Eventually, they’ll be able to start with a bare table and make a pleasing presentation.
Talk to customers
Teaching kids how to speak professionally, clearly, and assertively is a skill that goes far beyond business. I started out asking my introverted child to simply say, “Good morning!” audibly and clearly to every passer-by for a few minutes at a time while I tended to some other task. Then he began answering people on our prices. Eventually, his confidence and communication skills grew so much that now he can handle customers start to finish without me.
Qualifying the sale
Asking a few general questions such as, “What are you looking for today?” goes a long way towards matching up your product and your customer. It’s also a great lesson in diplomacy—ask questions first. Kids might not be able to think of these questions on their own, but if you give them 2 or 3 stock questions that they could use over and over, they’ll have this skill down in no time.
Communicate the value of their product
In the business world, this is called, “Overcoming objections.” Kids don’t have to have answers to every single objection they might possibly hear about their product, but talking through a couple likely scenarios will help them feel confident and prepared. In our case, this means being able to explain why our eggs are superior to the cheap white eggs from the grocery store–and worth 4 times more. Knowing a few bullet points about the benefits of farm fresh eggs give them what they need to overcome a few of the common objections we hear–and increases their sales.
Negotiate unusual sales
Sometimes we have customers who don’t need a full dozen eggs. Or in the spring, when we sell seedlings and bucket gardens, they want a special order. Allowing the kids to participate with you as you figure out how to fill unusual orders can help them learn to think outside the box in meeting customer requests. (It’s also a great chance for some more math practice!)
Close the Sale
Having a great product, answers to questions, and prices figured out doesn’t do any good unless you can actually start collecting money. Again, teaching kids a few basic “closing” lines can get them started: “How many can I bag for you today?” or “Would you like cucumbers or green beans, then?”
Make change and count it back
It’s a lost art in this age of computerized cash registers to figure out correct change using only your head. It works like this: If someone owes you $4.75 and they give you a $20 bill, how much change do they need? Counting back that change by starting with the sale amount is a rare skill, but one that’s easy enough to learn. Just start counting with the total of $4.75, and as you hand over coins and bills, count up out loud: $5, $10, $15, and $20. Of everything my kids can do at our farmer’s market booth, this skill is the one that gets the most compliments!
Handle upset customers
Fortunately, in our line of work, we don’t have too many upset customers. But occasionally, someone does have a complaint. For example, this spring we had a customer who incorrectly planted her tomato seedlings, and they all perished. She claimed that she never received our instructional handout, and we happen to know she is the type of person to tell others about her experiences. With all those factors, we replaced her plants. Learning how to listen empathetically, and then deciding how to make something right–or just leave it at an apology– is a delicate skill. Not everyone will be happy, and that’s ok. But expecting to occasionally encounter unhappy people, and knowing how to deal with them, will also increase your kid’s confidence in his business skills.
Being able to keep track of how much is left to sell, or what you usually sell in an afternoon’s time, or any other measure of inventory is a skill that can be easily developed with simple assignments. For example, have a younger child count up all the green peppers and write down the number.
Being able to add and subtract within the same page is another rapidly disappearing skill in our electronic age. Teach your child how to properly fill in basic accounting columns. For us, we might sell a few dozen eggs, then buy popcorn at a nearby stand, then sell some veggies, but buy bread from another vendor, and so forth. An older elementary child or middle schooler can easily learn how to record these transactions and keep a running total. And at the end of your sales day, show them how to count down the cash box back to your starting change to figure out the day’s sales.
How to accept tips
One thing I did not anticipate when we started our farmer’s market booth was how often my kids would be offered tips. They’ve been complimented and tipped for many of the skills listed above, as well as more traditional services such as helping people carry purchases to their vehicles. Learning not to ask for a tip from the next customer was a good lesson to have. And graciously accepting a compliment or a tip is a life skill that certainly transcends business transactions!
Create business relationships
There are only a handful of other vendors at our market, but my kids have made friends with all of them. The boys help carry in flats of produce, and help set up bread and honey at other booths. In the process, they are talking to other business people and learning from them. But they are also making contacts with people who could potentially serve as resources or references for them someday. It’s never too early to start making these connections!
Last weekend, my son and I volunteered for a booth at an event. Our “product” was a certain cause rather than vegetables, but all his skills were equally useful in the new context: creating a display, greeting people, qualifying the customer, matching up needs with product, and even dealing with grumpy people.
A farmer’s market is only one possibility. Other families we know make crafts to sell, and one teenager fixes cars. And there’s always a lemonade stand, garage sale, or the door-to-door school fundraiser. Whatever your family’s opportunities or interests, be on the lookout for ways you can impart business skills.
What activities are you already doing in that you could involve your kids, and teach them business skills?