The Downsides of Upselling: 4 Tips from the Farm

Shannon Hayes on keeping a human face on her capitalist ventures and learning to say “enough” when the market calls.
Ethical Business

A few weeks ago Bob and I had the delight of sharing the day at our farmers market with a young man who is preparing to go into grassfed farming. He worked closely with my mom and dad to understand the production end of the farm, then chose to spend a day with Bob and me to learn more about how our small family farm markets our products. From what I could tell, our farm wasn’t the first one he’d visited, and he’d spent a lot of time studying marketing.

As we set up for the day, we chatted about how Bob and I arrange our display, our techniques for keeping our products cold, and the ways we felt our meats looked best. I showed him where to pile the ground beef so that customers could find it easily.

“Oh! Yes!” he said with sudden enthusiasm. “That’s for the upsell!”

I stared at him blankly. “The what?”

“The upsell!” He bubbled. Observing I was unfamiliar with the term, he added, “Your technique for getting the customer to buy more than they planned. Maybe they come to buy some lamb, but then you also get them to buy some ground beef.”

“But-” I stammered. “I-I wouldn’t do that.”

“But that’s the way you sell more meat.”

“But that’s not my job.” He stared at me, confusion in his expression. I did my best to explain. “My job isn’t to sell more meat. My job is to take care of the customers and make sure they get what they need.” I paused for a second, then added, “They trust me. That’s why they come back.”

He suddenly nodded his head in understanding. “I see,” he said, “This simply isn’t a very upscale market.” Satisfied with his conclusions, he terminated the dialogue.

My family lives an interesting conundrum: We produce things to sell. But we want to play a part in unraveling our consumer culture.

He had it all wrong, but I didn’t know where to begin in my explanation. I’m a capitalist who is anti-consumerism. I like being an independent businessperson. I love exploring new entrepreneurial ventures. I get a real charge out of crunching numbers. And yes—I like to make money, and I have no interest in being poor. At the same time, I abhor the attributes of our consumer culture, where success and happiness are assumed to be directly tied to a person’s ability to waste resources.

Thus, my family lives an interesting conundrum: We produce things to sell. But we want to play a part in unraveling our consumer culture. We haven’t got the conflict perfectly worked out by any means. But here are some of the ways we’ve learned to negotiate the tension:

  1. Ask for a living wage. 

    Our products are not cheap. We gave up the price war with competing businesses long ago. If we can be assured that we are paid for the things we produce at a rate that allows us to live comfortably, then we, in return, are not compelled to “upsell” the customers. Thus, we are as interested in helping someone on a tight budget figure out how best to stretch their meat dollars as we are in the customer who is looking to enjoy a special steak dinner. Since we know we will be fairly compensated either way, we are able to help people on both ends of the spectrum.
    As we sit around the back porch discussing our opportunities, someone in the family inevitably pipes up with the critical question: Do we have enough?
  2. Expand within the resource base. 

    As our family has grown, so have our income needs. Our property taxes are higher. Our medical expenses are higher. Rather than expanding our herds beyond the carrying capacity of our land, we seek opportunities for growth that are synergistic with our farm. We’ve added honey bees, who help pollinate our fruit and pastures. We sell the honey, use it for curing bacon from our pigs, make products from the wax. We look for areas of waste—such as the animal fats that go unused. We render it for sale, pair it with our beeswax to make salves and ointments, process it into soap. We don’t produce a lot. We just try to make use of what already exists. Thus, our marketing is relatively limited. We sell at our farmers market, directly from the farm, and sporadically through our website. We don’t need to seek corporate contracts, brand recognition, or high sales volumes. Thus, we don’t feel compelled to push for the “upsell.” Customers learn what we have, and buy as it suits their needs. 
  3. Recycle within the production stream.

    Bob and I have a cabinet filled with glass jars recycled from our paté and honey. We choose more expensive packaging for our products that enable us to reuse. We pay refunds on jars that come back. We encourage customers to bring us their plastic shopping bags for recycling, as well as their egg boxes. We try to reduce the consumption of packaging while continuing to sell our products.
  4. Understanding enough. 

    Years ago, my dad told us a story about a field day he attended on an Amish farm, where a crop specialist asked the farmer for the yields he was getting on a particular field. The farmer gazed out at the field, then offered a one-word answer: “Enough.” That word has become the motto of our family business. We need enough. Enough to stay warm, to pay the bills, to live comfortably, to have a viable, manageable business for the next generation. When we push to have more than that, there is generally a trade-off: the land is over-used, our bodies are over-tired, our souls not quite as nourished. We regularly receive opportunities to do more – to take our products to new markets, to take on more exclusive clientele, to expand our herd, to take on more land. Some of the offers are pretty tempting. But as we sit around the back porch discussing our opportunities, someone in the family inevitably pipes up with the critical question: Do we have enough? In most cases, heads nod in affirmation. We shrug our shoulders, and move on to talk about something else.

No, I don’t suppose Sap Bush Hollow Farm will ever become a Fortune 500 company. Nor will we be the most competitive business. Our gross receipts remain modest, and our “brand recognition” has a pretty small geographical area. But Bob and I stand at the same farmers market booth every Saturday as the members of our family have done for the last 20 years. We see the same customers from week to week. They know us, they trust us, and we sell them what they need. No upselling. And in exchange, we always have enough. 

    Shannon Hayes


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