Marcus Carter spent 20 years in agriculture before falling in love with the ideals of community and fresh produce at the farmers’ market… Then he decided to reproduce that shopping experience online.
Marcus Carter isn’t your usual suspect in terms of what you expect an e-commerce entrepreneur to be. He spent many years of his life as a farmer in fact, spending some time working in the hay industry in Australia before returning to his native UK.
After having done the rounds in grass roots food production, Carter then turned to his food distribution business. It was while running this business that he realised his passion for an age-old shopping experience: The farmers’ market.
“I’d been selling my family’s pâté (Patchwork Foods) at the market for a few years when I realised there really wasn’t anything like it online,” Carter explains. His chosen method of delivering this new idea was nothing short of unorthodox.
The Thing About Virtual Worlds
Carter began talking to the other fine food producers he knew and began to curry favour for an online store. However, it was another personal interest that came to influence his next steps.
“At the time, I was very interested in virtual worlds; Second Life and places like it,” Carter says. “At that stage I discovered someone who could design environments on that platform and he became my business partner for that enterprise.”
In many ways, the decision to reproduce the farmers’ market digitally was a no-brainer for Carter, who saw Second Life as the vehicle to allow him to reproduce the experience almost identically, and he did so with the assistance of Julie Aravantinos, who had the skills to build out the virtual market development.
“We had a 3D market where people could come in and look at all the different stalls, look at the product on those stalls and even see a pre-recorded video of that specific producer talking about their wares,” says Carter. “When someone clicked on the item they were interested in, the customer would be redirected to a transaction website, as we couldn’t have the actual transactions taking place in the game.”
While Carter’s project was highly ambitious, it was doomed to fail for one very simple reason.
“The problem with a virtual world like Second Life is the barrier to entry. Not everyone is playing the game, and it’s not the quickest or cheapest thing to do either. Sure, there may be a large number of people using the platform, but that’s nothing compared to the entire possible market that exists for this kind of produce.”
In that sense, Carter has created his farmers’ market inside a walled garden; it was elegant, but ultimately unprofitable.
Out of the Frying Pan
As the wheels began to grind to a halt on the very first Virtual Farmers’ Market, Carter decided he would have to transfer is Second Life offering into a more ‘traditional’ platform and therefore open it up to the entire online population. Unfortunately, his troubles were not yet over.
“The problem is the difference between going to a market in reality and visiting an online equivalent,” Carter says. “These producers provide for all different categories of product, so what method is the best for displaying all that online so that customers can easily find what they want, from where they want it? Our mistake was to transfer what we had in the virtual environment directly into a new online store and it just killed our onsite search and SEO value.”
Carter spent a tonne of time and resources in building a website that put the producers before the product, and in that sense it was fundamentally flawed.
“We had everything listed by company instead of category, which is something our latest iteration seeks to rectify.”
Having made two significant errors in judgement in bringing the farmers’ market online, Carter isn’t prepared to make another. He has spent plenty of time seeking out the right people to help put together his new site, taking on the web development firm Dot Ingenuity. He has also become something of a search and SEO expert in the process.
“SEO is the key to solving our current issues. We have to optimise for the words for what our customers are actually looking for, which would have been great to understand from day one,” he says. “The only advice I have for people: don’t let a farmer build a website.”
“The Virtual Farmers’ Market had more than 120 producers at one point,” says Carter. “I still believe that if I can bring all these together as a group, we can generate interest online. Now that I’ve learned all these lessons, I’ve also come to appreciate the true benefits of selling online. To a certain extent, there’s no guessing in online retail. You know how many people are searching for your products or brands. You can find out exactly how many people visit your website as well as how many actually buy something. In that sense, the internet is completely fascinating.”
Carter is currently making way for the latest version of the Virtual Farmers’ Market, and with his SEO and categorisation issues solved, there’s a good chance he’ll be successful this time. He has even put the wheels into motion that will make the enterprise truly cutting edge.
“We’ve been integrating our Facebook as well as providing social mechanisms on the website itself. Producers all have their own pages that customers can interact with. I really think the social side of the business will become a major part of its development,” Carter says. “Social media is a key way to underpin your loyal customers with your product or service, so we’re looking to really enable social commerce with VFM2.”
“We have a proprietary promotions system, whereby people earn ‘Karma points’ when they interact with the website, but even better than that; we’ve just completed development of a VFM2 mobile app, so customers can take the online market with them to the real market and begin to blur the boundaries of the two experiences.”
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