Market Forces: the return of the Wellington Farmers’ Market

So. Apparently the Jet Stream is back on course and a dry weekend awaits us in Wellington. And what better way to enjoy it than wandering down into Market Square on Saturday to enjoy not only Three in a Bar Jazz Band but also the all-new Wellington Farmers Market?!

Market Square

This Saturday, 21st July, will see the first Wellington Farmers Market in about four years. Organised by the Market Company using gazebos belonging to the town council, they will take place on the third Saturday of every month in Market Square, bringing together around ten or twelve local food and craft producers (which is as many as the space can hold).

The farmers market in 2008

So why bother if Wellington already has one of Shropshire’s biggest markets? Well, just as local environmental group LA21 realised a decade ago when they first launched a farmers’ market in the town, Wellington’s regular indoor market has a few gaps when it comes to local food and crafts. LA21 started their project just as farmers markets were in the ascendency nationally. It was modest in size, but it was good. It brought the Square to life once a month.

After a couple of years, the Market Company took on the running of this monthly event – it made sense, I suppose, they’re the experts. The problem was that the Market Company didn’t ever seem to actually ‘run’ it – they just put gazebos up in the morning and took them down at lunchtime, without taking much interest what happened in the meantime. They didn’t have contact details for their farmers market stall-holders, they didn’t promote the market either to new stalls or to shoppers, and in the end it fizzled out with a lonely donut stand – hardly a farmers market, and a sadly wasted opportunity.

But now it’s back, and the Market Company is going to do it properly. Kay, the market’s current manager, is enthusiastic and understands that an occasional outdoor market, focusing on local food and crafts, will augment rather than undermine the indoor market’s offer. Indeed those indoor stalls who fit the bill – i.e. Lesley’s Larder and the new cake stall – will take up pitches themselves, alongside visiting traders. As well as providing something different for regular shoppers, it will hopefully appeal to people who don’t currently shop in the market. Kay understands that promoting this revived scheme is all about highlighting the individual, the quirky, the homespun, and hopefully he’ll be keeping a tight grip on the sorts of stall holders who take part – establishing and protecting the ‘brand’ will be important.

Lesley's Larder stall

The fact is that across Britain, outdoor markets are booming. People like the idea of farmers’ and artisan stalls livening up their streets and squares, just as they did prior to the 19th century when markets were at the heart of our shopping life. Yet whilst Britain’s revived outdoor markets thrive, many of their indoor incarnations have become tired and uninviting, filled with bargains – low cost clothes, household goods etc – but maybe not much to satisfy all those shoppers looking for the sights, smells and buzz of the best street markets.

It’s as though indoor markets, in trying to play catch up with the low cost supermarkets and warehouse outlets, have lost their soul. But you can’t out-supermarket a supermarket, and whilst there’s certainly a role for markets selling everyday household goods at reasonable prices, increasingly that isn’t enough to get shoppers through the doors. Meanwhile, it’s the new generation of outdoor farmers’ markets that lay claim to be the inheritors of that traditional market atmosphere (or at least our romanticised vision of it) with all those colours and smells and artisan traders.

Taking the outside in…

This new farmers market in Wellington will help bring that buzz and bustle back into the centre of the town, provided its run well and secures the right mix of good stalls. But what about the other three weekends of every month? Can our regular indoor market do more to recapture the magic of market shopping? It remains busy, popular, well-known and does better than most. It is still much loved by many of us, but does it really fulfil its potential? I asked a few friends what they thought.

‘The sounds and smells, no supermarket can ever match it, the fact that although its crowded you never feel as rushed as you do in a retail park. Admittedly it’s been a few years since I was last there.’

‘It sells everything a market should, all in all it’s not too bad.’

‘It’s just looking so tired. Some of the stall holders are pretty complacent about their stall displays. It’s not changed in 20 years!’

‘It’s nice for the children to shop in a place that’s not a supermarket , and where they know the names of the people on the other side of the counter. So we get what we can at the market,  but it’s a shame it’s limited.’ 

Pears

If we reflect on what it is that’s making farmers markets to popular, can we inject a bit more of that into Wellington’s market hall? It’s got variety and it’s got bargains, but does it give us enough that’s really high quality, that’s really distinctive? I’d love to walk through those aisles and see more that’s handmade or home-grown. This is a county of food producers and craftspeople, but aside from the excellent Lesley’s Larder, Maddocks & Sons, Peter Freeston-Smith (below) and a few others, they’re barely represented inside the market.

Peter Freeston-Smith

Marketing the market

And what about the way the market promotes itself? Ask people what makes markets special and, as is evident from those few quotes above, one of their strengths is that they provide a welcome antidote to the mind-numbing sameness of the modern chain stores. Together, its stall holders create something that is entirely unique – unlike a Tescos or a TK Maxx, you can’t walk into any other market in the country and get the same.

In other words, it’s NOT being the same as everywhere else that helps bring in the customers. Yet most of the company’s adverts you’ll see in the local press seem to want to promote the idea that Wellington’s market is just one of many, the generic ‘Town and Country Markets’ logo displayed prominently. Whilst based here in Wellington, ‘Town and Country’ is the name the market operator uses across its 20 or so sites nationally. We should be proud that such a large business is based here in our town, but if it is individuality and uniqueness that people want from a market, doesn’t generic advertising like this totally miss the point? Do they think that people reading these adverts will say ‘Oh, Wellington is one of those ‘Town and Country’ markets – it must be a good one. I’ll go along.’ Hmm, I’m not convinced.

town and country logo

For us, here in Wellington, the name Wellington Market Company means a lot more. It bears the date of our earliest market charter, 1244, and an image that includes the market hall and The Wrekin. What could be more locally distinctive than that.

So, an appeal to the Market Company’s powers that be: you’ve got an asset that we love, an asset that’s good but could be great – a first rate market with all the individuality and quality that implies, and that people would come miles to experience. But that won’t come from diluting its distinctiveness and making it feel like part of a chain.

With some imagination ours could be a town of markets and fairs – not just the regular indoor market, but speciality food markets, craft markets, antiques fairs, Christmas fairs and other things besides. Let’s see if Saturday is a step in the right direction…

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