UP Market Challenge - Manage a Business Startup that's Right for Uphams Corner

The UP Market Planning Committee has targeted upscale arts-oriented and handcrafted products in a neighborhood (Uphams Corner) where the "regulars" are used to bargains. Review of the poor UP Market results from 6/21 raises concerns for the market's viability in the current format.  With no market reserach, the Planning Committee seems to be operating this new complex business startup more on "hope" and the good will of the (very few) vendors. Does the current branding make sense for anyone - vendors and customers alike? 

Read the article Up Market for June 21 - Handful of Vendors and a Few Customers

UP Market 6/21/14The UP Market Planning Committee met on June 30, 2014 to review the June 21st UP Market event and to plan for future UP markets.  The meeting began with members identifying event pluses and minuses - what went well and areas that needed improvement.

The group produced a whole list of problems, many of them balls that were dropped as Max McCarthy, the former UCMS Executive Director, transitioned out of that position – no food trucks, no activities for the kids, a clueless UP Truck, no information tables and more.  However, none of these items, had they been present or better handled, would have made any difference, or very little, in the sales of vendor products.

Guessing why passersby refused to even walk onto the Paraiso Plaza to view the vendor items, as one participant requested, was a distraction, perhaps to make us feel better - as if we had any control over what would make local residents show an interest in the UP Market.  This went unanswered.

The Uphams Corner Stigma

Two planning committee members (also vendors) expressed concerns about holding a quality arts-oriented open air market in Uphams Corner. 

Nancy Conrad suggested a higher-quality vendor market might be a tough sell in Uphams Corner - maximum sales price of $5.00 (according to one business owner), passersby refusing to even enter the UP Market Plaza to look around, significant outreach both personally and digitally with no results, lack of support by local stakeholders and more.  

Jaypix Belmer responded with a stalwart:  "It's going to work."

Clarinda King, who has sold products at many open air markets, learned on 6/21 she needed to offer some lower-priced items to garner any sales. Her $25 and $30 hand knit scarves were not selling.  She suggested there was a stigma attached to Uphams Corner. "Look at the types of stores that are here.  People who come here to shop from somewhere else think 'bargain.'  Another example is the Pilgrim Church's flea market."

Liora Beer said she had interviewed the SOWA market manager.  It took them ten years before their market was viable.  "It doesn't happen overnight and we shouldn't be hard on ourselves and others."  Interestingly, no one in the meeting was being hard on anybody least of all themselves but ten years??  "Be nice" is the message but that doesn't mean things will work out well.  Staying realistic and thinking business / entrepreneur is what is called for here. 

Clarinda suggested that we needed to change resident mindsets.  At the same time, she said it was important that we continue "doing the same beautiful job we did on June 21st." She  said she showed pictures of the UP Market to friends "who thought it was stellar, the whole layout very professional." 

She also spoke of the need for garnering support from local area stakeholders. "Running an open air market with only five vendors is not going to work.  And if we can't depend on the passersby and local residents for sales, then we need to somehow show people outside the community that Uphams Corner is worth coming to.  Local residents can buy into the market later. "

Changing the UP Market Format

Nancy and Clarinda's comments led to a whole slew of suggestions on how to make the UP Market day more attractive to people and families - ethnic / cultural food, activities for kids, a raffle, free stickers (shop local) and resting places to let the visitors linger. 

Making the day more attractive raised Clarinda's ire who said the event is a MARKET, not a family fun day.  If you emphasize the fun too much, no one will pay attention to the market and no one will buy.

Liora Beer said: "You can't make people spend money. The best you can do is to provide a fun day that includes a market and maybe people will remember." 

For Clarinda, that wasn't acceptable. "The event needs to be sold as a vendor market with fun things to do as an add-on," not the other way around.  No compromise was reached on these two very different views of the event. 

If we step back and look at the nature of the conversation taking place, we find two different camps.

Managing the New Business Startup

Up MarketThe Planning Committee is comprised of "partners" and Market Managers who are being paid by The Boston Foundation and a couple vendors who are not.  Interestingly, those being paid seem to be the ones who are openly more optimistic in the face of reality, saying that things will eventually pan out, that we have to "reach out," that we need to be patient (10 years) and "network" to get the market established.

What is not being addressed at Planning Committee meetings is the business nature of the UP Market.  Not just a collection of individual vendors, the UP Market is a (fragile) new business startup.  While temporarily supported by grants from the Boston Foundation, the market is eventually expected to self-sustaining.  As with any business startup, the Planning Committee needs to adhere to a solid business plan which includes:
Based on current results, we have to conclude that the UP Market startup business is, more than anything else, being allowed to "evolve." 

Given the minimal but almost exclusive focus on the Uphams Corner area for advertising, the planners must have assumed the locals would patronize the market.   But what happened on June 21 is that six vendors participated (original estimates were 17) with 16 recorded customers and very low sales.  In retrospect, the 6/21 event wasn't really opening day; it was a "test market trial." 

Wake-Up Call for the UP Market

June 21st was a wakeup call for the planners.  Postmortem conversations took on a more serious tone especially in the face of the realities of the Uphams Corner location.  Planners realized that depending on local traffic may not work unless there is a dramatic change in both advertising and products offered.  As currently configured, UP Market sales will depend on attracting customers from outside Uphams Corner.  And that means Uphams Corner will have to offer something so extra-special that no one can pass up the event.  And six vendors simply is not enough to create that attraction.

The UP Market planners have branded themselves with more expensive artist-oriented and handcrafted products which means they may be automatically targeting customers atypical of Uphams Corner regulars.  Designing an UP Market for the Uphams Corner locals might mean the UP Market will have to cater to "bargain" buyers and at least sport a mixture of products from low to high.  And this would put it into direct competition with existing Uphams Corner businesses.

Yet, a "bargain" market has NEVER been the intent of the UP Market planners as it was viewed as a component of making the Fairmount Corridor an artistic and cultural corridor.

This factor notwithstanding, we still need to ask:  Has the UP Market been configured to authentically respect the local community or is it depending on outsiders or the gentrification of Uphams Corner to sustain it? 

 A member of the UP Truck team providing feedback from the 6/21 event said:  "Our market research (direct interaction with the residents) would lean the market more toward affordable products and arts products (T-shirts) that promote involvement by the residents to create the finished product.  Higher quality products are also fine but a mix including the affordable is important.

In response to Clarinda's note on the Uphams Corner "bargain" stigma, Justin Almeida jumped into the conversation and described a hidden market "out there somewhere" (not his words).

"There are 13,000 residents," he said, "in the Uphams Corner area with a median income of $43,000. That means there's a lot of people who do not shop in the downtown Uphams Corner district" (with its discount everything stores). He emphasized that "our long-term goal is to create an event that will attract residents who live in the immediate area to come to the downtown center district for this type of event and then spend some money."

All well and good but if I live in the Greater Boston area or even close by, the ONLY reason I might consider going to an Uphams Corner open air market is because that market boasts many high quality (juried class) vendors and products.  Six vendors, some selling arts-oriented and hand-crafted items and others reselling from wholesalers certainly did not work in June. 

A note of caution:

You CANNOT change anybody.  Changes in behavior and mindset come from within as people establish an affinity with (in this case) a public process that, handled well, allows  visitors to leave feeling good about themselves and the event.

UP Market Event Planning Strategy

Strong vendor sales and Good times by all

        <===  Many customers         <=== Good advertising     <=== Many appropriate vendors / products

With a high number of vendors registered well in advance of the event and auxiliary activities (as appropriate) scheduled, the Planning Committee will have fodder to advertise the UP Market effectively and demonstrate the event is worth attending - products / activities / food / entertainment (as appropriate).

Targeted buyers Identify the buyers and where they live.  What is their discretionary spending capability?  What would they expect from the event?  What range of vendor types and products is most appropriate?  Plan the event accordingly. (Know your customers)
Variety of  vendors Recruit a variety of vendors ranging across the tastes of the targeted buyers so the UP Market will achieve critical volume and be able to sustain itself.
Multi-media advertising Use social media, digital platforms, paper media and traditional advertising that works in the target geographies especially in Uphams Corner.  A permanent sign advertising the event would keep the day fresh in everyone's mind.
Eventful day Make sure the customers leave the event with good memories, mementos and less money in their pockets than they started out with.  Make sure all the promises are met - food, activities, entertainment as appropriate.
Day of Stats More than managing a sign-in sheet, welcome visitors and help them find what they are looking for. "How can I help you?"  And keep stats on customers.

The Uphams Corner UP Market still has a chance to be successful.  Only one event has taken place with much learned and four more days in 2014 to "get it right"  (July-October). 

The question remains, is there enough momentum - sufficient variety and product attractiveness - among the returning June vendors and those who plan to sign up for July, to make the UP Market look and feel like a viable, productive, successful and exciting activity in Uphams Corner, attractive to outsiders and residents alike? 

We'll find out.

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Posted: July 6, 2014    Nancy J Conrad