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Retention is a key metric for CSA success because it points to customer happiness and higher retention means more time farming and less time marketing.
The following tips come out of my experience in working in and around CSAs for over 10 years as well as interviews I did with high retention farmers for the CSA Retention webinar. If the tip comes from a high retention farmer, that is noted at the end of the tip.
When people do not sign up again, send them a survey or call them to find out why they did not join your CSA again. Many times, it is as simple as a move or that the CSA model does not work for them, but when you can get useful feedback from a member who leaves for a preventable reason, you get a window into the customer experience.
The first step to improving retention is to simply measure it so you can track your progress over the years. Take the time to calculate this -- if you use Member Assembler, this report is available for you out of the box.
The overall retention number is not very useful on it’s own, although it can be used to track progress over the years. What is more useful for your retention going forward is to break that retention percentage down by different sub-sections of your membership. For example, try tracking retention by pickup location and type of share.
If you have significantly higher retention at one pickup location than another, you can start to concoct some theories for why that may happen. Maybe one of your pickup hosts makes the experience extra-wonderful for your members at that location: you can figure out what the successful host does and try to transfer those traits to other pickup hosts. The key here is that these more detailed numbers will give you excellent clues on how to improve your retention.
If your farm is far from a population center, this may not be a choice, but on-farm pickups have higher retention percentages than "box drop" locations.
The CSA model requires a high degree of trust between eater and farmer, so make sure you honor this relationship! Never take advantage of the fact that members have prepaid for their box - they should always get the best product from your farm due to the fact that they have prepaid. (Paul from Fort Hill Farm)
Paul from Fort Hill Farm says that it is important not to overload CSA members with “weird” vegetables like kohlrabi. This can lead to produce waste and cooking stress!
In all three “high retention” CSAs I have studied and in talking to other CSA farmers, the “market style” CSA has come up as a driver of high retention. When I say “market style”, I mean a CSA that has a preset share each week, but the product is put out in bulk bins at the pickup location and members pack their own bags. I have a couple of theories on why this promotes great retention: members are packing their own bags, so they can’t complain about rotten produce in the box, better atmosphere for community building because people can talk and meet each other, and they get to meet CSA staff members at the site.
There are significant downsides to the market style model: each pickup must be staffed and there will be product shrinkage. Because each pickup must be staffed, you will need to bring more people to each pickup location and then pay someone to be at the location. However, retention is golden and these trade offs may be worth it for you!
Market style pickups can happen on-farm or off-farm, but if the pickup is going to happen at an off-farm location, site selection will likely be much more difficult because you will need space to spread out the bulk bins for distribution.
Art from Harvest Valley Farm notes that his members refer to him as “my farmer”. This personal connection drives retention, so do everything you can to promote connection.
Make sure your post-harvest processing techniques quickly take field heat out of your produce and follow all post-harvest best practices. Produce that has been processed correctly will last significantly longer in storage and in your member’s refrigerator. You never, ever want a customer to throw product away! (Art King, Harvest Valley Farm).
Dave from Gorman Farm makes his members feel special by giving them a special area of the farm stand (the farm stand is open to the public as well). Certain products are members only, so if someone from the general public wants to buy those products, they simply can’t! They need to join the CSA next season.
Know your member’s names when they come to pick up each week. Dave from Gorman Farm encourages his staff to know the names of customers. This makes them feel special and valued! Relationships with farm employees keep member's coming back year after year instead of the CSA feeling like a nameless box of local produce.
Plant something every week through the season to make sure that you have something new to put in the box each week. This holds member’s attention and keeps them engaged with farm news and product seasonality! (Dave from Gorman Farm)
Happy members are your best advocates in the community and they stick around year after year. One way to ensure that you have happy members is to get people to join your CSA that are right for it -- explain the CSA well on your website and have comprehensive membership terms to avoid surprises! (Dave from Gorman Farm)
One way of finding out what people want is to ask them in a survey or during pickup conversation. If you sell at farmers markets, think about what sells well and what does not sell well. For products that do not sell well, it is likely that your customers are also getting tired of those products so they should not be in the box as frequently.
Many CSAs do an end-of-season survey which is very useful, but for specific feedback consider sending a survey out with each weekly email or a couple of times during the season. You will be looking for feedback on that specific box: what items they liked and what they did. Was anything rotten in the box? Did they not get an item?
These types of questions give you valuable feedback and give you a way to fix problems with members mid-season so negativity does not fester that will lead to a cancellation for next season.
The worst experience a CSA member can have is that moment that they throw away old and rotten produce from the bottom of their refrigerator. It makes them wonder why they joined a CSA if they are just going to throw the product. It makes them feel guilty.
It’s impossible to prevent this 100% of the time, but to reduce this as much as possible make sure you are giving members the products that they want, the right box size (not too much produce), recipes and cooking skills, and a high-quality product that will last for as long as possible in their refrigerator.
Chris Blanchard from Flying Rutaga Works notes that at Rock Spring Farm, "we used our email newsletter service to send newsletters at 4:00 PM the day before we delivered our shares. When we started this, our pickup rate surged from 85% to 98%".
Connect your customers to the farm by inviting them out to visit. This is especially important if most members do not pick up at the farm. Some ideas for farm events:
Get members to join your next season as soon as possible so they don’t forget about your farm! This is especially important if you have a large gap in shares like many seasonal CSAs in northern climates. Allow your members to sign up as soon as possible and give them an early bird discount: for example, $20 off if they sign up by December 1st.
Say “thank you” as much as possible to your customers. Know their names. Tell them how important they are to your farm. It’s free!
This goes along with “never allow members to throw produce away”: make sure members have the exact right amount of produce in the box. If there is too much, all you do is overwhelm the member and they will not come back next year.
Even if you know your members are 100% happy with the CSA, survey them each year. Get feedback. There is always something to improve each year!
Start tracking your retention this year and do something each year to improve it!
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