DIY Marketing with the Honor System

This DIY, trust-based marketing method encourages you to maintain your integrity and make real profits. This model can work for nearly any product you choose to sell.

fruit stand using honor system marketing and payment

Honor system marketing allows customers to have access to items and services they need, even in the absence of the owner/seller.

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Honor System Marketing (Acres U.S.A, 2011) by Jeffery Mcpherson offers advice on how to adopt this DIY, trust-based marketing plan for your own needs and capacities. Mcpherson details how to avoid common mistakes, manage finances, and maintain a sense of optimism with real-life anecdotes. The following excerpt, from Chapter 3, covers the basics of getting set up to sell using the honor system.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Honor System Marketing.

Getting Set Up to Sell with the Honor System

It doesn’t matter if you are a green thumb hobbyist, a one-thousand acre citrus farmer or a marina boat ramp owner. Anyone can use the honor system. The two things you need most are something to sell and a place to sell it.

This chapter gives the basic tips and suggestions to help you get started. It tells what others are doing so you can better decide what you want to do.

No! You don’t have to be a farmer but you do need to be able to produce or have something to sell. Everyone is different so grow or manufacture what you enjoy and sell it using the honor system. This chapter does not tell you how to produce what you sell. For all intents and purposes I will use examples that relate to farming simply because that is what I am familiar with. But you can sell any product you desire using the honor system. You can use honor system marketing to run your business if you own a fishpond, parking lot, boat dock, hiking/biking trail, camping site, canoe/boat launch or whatever.

A large-scale farmer may only sell his excess crop using an honor system, the rest may be grown under contract for one buyer. A perfect example of this is a farmer who already has a market for most of his crops but occasionally has some good quality crop left in the field. Rather than allow the un-harvested crops to spoil in the field he employs the honor system to sell it for him.

Choosing a Location

Do you know what you will sell at your honor system? If so, remember this. No one can buy your product if they cannot find it or see it. Put the stuff in full view and make it easy to find. Word of mouth can sell some of your product even if it is in your back yard or in the back field but if you really want to sell it — put it in the front yard or on a stand beside the road.

Hobbyists may set up temporary tables in their front yard under a tree or umbrella for shade. When products are sold out they simply remove the table, sign and the umbrella.

I recommend that front yard sellers encourage neighbors and customers to walk-in. Customers driving vehicles will drive all over your yard if they aren’t blocked. Good customers will honor your requests. Those who don’t aren’t wanted anyway.

For gardeners and farmers who have medium- to large-size properties I recommend a more permanent sales area with adequate parking to suit the size of your operation. You can design your own layout or take advantages of the free services offered by your local Agricultural Cooperative Extension Service. They have super publications that can help you design your marketplace. See the following drawing for an example of a drive-through market.

Roadside Stand Layout & Design

There is no standard formula for designing your roadside stand. It could be as simple as a table under a tarp, or as elaborate as an air-conditioned building. The important thing is to make the area clean, attractive and convenient for both you and your customers — including making it accessible to everyone. If possible, even plan for future expansion.

Many people are attracted to the nostalgic feeling of roadside stands. Even if you are building a new facility, try to incorporate a rustic feel if it fits your business theme.

If your stand is inside a building, be sure to provide adequate lighting and ventilation. A garage door provides good access for stocking supplies, and can impart an open-air feel when the weather is good.

First impressions are important. Design your entrance accordingly. Design your stand to display as many products as possible. Displays should be well lit and attractive.

Design the stand to keep customers in a good mood. Allow ample space for multiple customers to move around. Your customers will appreciate the convenience of weight scales. Provide pleasant background music and scents, such as a pot of simmering cider if appropriate. Also provide ample space for preparation and storage. These should be convenient to the sales areas.

Make sure you set up the market in a safe area far enough from the legal right-of-ways. Safety is very important. Motorists and customers need plenty of room. Your state Department of Transportation (DOT) regulates the location, design, construction and maintenance of all driveway connections to the state highway systems. They will not permit indiscriminate roadside development and unregulated access to public highways. Studies have shown that driveway connections are a leading cause of vehicle collisions. Unregulated roadside development can result in decreased highway capacity, driver and pedestrian confusion and increased safety hazards.

Your DOT will be able to assist you in implementing your plans to locate your new honor system beside the highway right-of-ways. They will help you determine the proper size of the driveway entrance and exit. The DOT can even tell you how many cars go past your location on a given day. The DOT will be very valuable to you. Do not neglect calling them.

Lock Up or Leave Out

The decision to leave your product out at night or after closing can be a complicated one. Common sense should tell you what to do in your situation but experience will be the one to teach you what you should do. Often the crime rate in your area will make the decision for you. Talk with your local police department and get to know them well.

Believe it or not some folks (like me) do actually leave their stuff out. They have no locks, no gates and no closed signs. Only you can determine whether to lock up or not. Ask yourself the following questions. Your answers should tell you what to do.

• Is the stuff left at the end of the day worth saving?
• Are there lots of potential customers driving by at night?
• Does locking up give you more peace of mind?
• Is the crime rate high enough in my area to merit locking up?
• Am I going to worry about it all night?

If you are still not sure what to do, try it both ways. It will not take long to figure out whether you should lock up the honor system products.

Days & Hours of Operation

Here are three examples of what other honor system users are doing.

Some post the days and times they are open. They lock up everything or remove everything from the sales tables during the closed times.

Some are open 24 hours a day. Nothing is done to prevent theft or vandalism. Most of these people put motion lights at the premises. These lights come on when someone comes up to the market. The lights deter crime but also offer light for honest late night customers such as the second shift workers.

Some are closed on certain days like Sundays or holidays. These people may use a combination of the two above opening situations.

In my experience I have found that my best days are Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. But we are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This is what works best for me. Your situation may be different.

Signage, Advertising & Publicity

At your honor system market, whether it is just a small table under a shade tree or a large roadside stand, you should make one thing very clear. Make sure everybody who stops at the market knows immediately that you operate an honor system.

A simple sign or two that reads “Honor System” with 2- or 3-inch letters is highly recommended. Directly underneath the words “Honor System” you should state a brief explanation. It should say something like this, “We use the Honor System. Pick out what you want and put the payment in the box! Thank you. Ed.”

Some honor system owners also post the universal emblem of honor systems in addition to the honor system sign. This emblem designates and indicates to everyone who sees it that an honor system is in use. This emblem/insignia can be used on business cards, roadside signs, bumper stickers, advertisements and articles or to advise customers of the use of an honor system.

When using large roadside signage I recommend advertising only the name of your market, what you sell and directions to your market. If you still desire to advertise the honor system write “Honor System” in small letters in a less conspicuous place on the sign or use the universal emblem as a footnote on the sign. In my opinion it is better to inform potential customers of the honor system at the market not on billboards, newspapers, radio or television.

Another signage tool to use at your market are “motto signs.” These special signs make simple positive statements like “Be Trustworthy,” “Integrity?” “Be Honest, Feel Good” or “Honesty is the Best.” You can probably think of many other mottos that fit your personality or your community.

Please be wise in your choice of mottos however. I recommend you do not use mottos with secular, judgmental and other offensive overtones. Be positive! Your customers will come from all kinds of cultural backgrounds and ethnicity. If you offend one person they could cause 100 others never to patronize your honor system market.

The best form of advertising is word of mouth. Good honest customers telling their friends about your market are the best. Remember the following advice if you decide to advertise. It is best to advertise what you are selling but not how you are selling it.

Does this make sense? Advertising the honor system can be detrimental to your market. When you advertise an honor system you either inform new thieves or remind former ones that you are in business. You will have enough dishonest customers without attracting more.

This rule also applies to publicity. I have learned this the hard way — so don’t make the same mistakes I made. Publicity that seems good may in fact be bad for an honor system.

Remember this about publicity — newspapers and TV reporters are out to get the news! Some of them are determined to report the story no matter how the story may affect the person they are writing about.

I have some acquaintances that are TV and newspaper reporters. My relationship with them depends largely on how they portray my market. I am very careful what I say to them.

Get ready, because when you use the honor system the news will spread to the newspaper staff writers and the local TV reporters. Soon someone will approach you for an interview.

If you decide to talk get the rules straight first. Use your good sense and wisdom. Don’t say things that you will regret later. It is best not to tell them anything about income and losses, expenses, good customers or bad ones. They will report anything you say and often exaggerate it. When things are said or printed they cannot be changed. The public will take everything as the truth whether it is or not.

After many interviews with reporters I have came to this basic conclusion — overall it is best not to publicize your honor system. Talk about what you sell and your location but don’t emphasize the honor system to them. Forbid them to mention the honor system online, in the newspaper and on television. This fact may be hard to believe but my experience in my community makes it true for me.

In my experience, each and every time that reporters emphasized the honor system the theft rate increased dramatically at my market. Remember that fact when the reporters are calling. Now I avoid talking about the honor system in most interviews but I always talk about what I am harvesting at the farm.

The Pay Box

All cash boxes should have a lock. The lock should be small and cheap. If a thief tries to break into the box it should open easy. Breaking in should be easy enough so as to prevent him or her from destroying your box and what it is attached to. Make it easy for them or else it may cost you a lot more to repair the damage they do to your property!

I also learned this the hard way. One spring someone broke into my cash box 13 times. I will explain this further later in the book.

There are several types of boxes you might use. Almost anything will work as long as you can lock it. Put a hasp on it if you need to. Construct your box out of almost any material. Put a money slot or hole in the top of the box. Mount them on walls, tables, benches, trailers, the back of a parked truck or whatever you need.

Make sure the box is mounted where everyone can see it. Make a sign and on it write “PAY HERE.” Paint or stick the words on the payment box. Use arrows pointing to the money slot on the box. Do whatever you can to show your customers where the pay box is located.

Our pay box is big enough to keep our portable scales in it when they are not in use. I suggest you make the pay box big, and the bigger the better. Use it to store your markers, pencils, scratch pads, pricing paper, stapler or anything you need for the sales area. Our pay box is two-feet wide, 14 inches thick and 18 inches tall. It is bolted to the wall so it cannot be moved (but the lock is tiny).

Some people operate in areas where they actually use jars, shoeboxes, coffee cans, or something that could easily be taken. They never tie them down to prevent theft. I am so thankful for areas like that. My dream is for all of us to be able to operate in a crime-free society. For most of us however, this will remain a dream for the foreseeable future.

Sign Up Sheets

Supplement your honor system with the opportunity for your customers to sign up for your seasonal products. Place sign up sheets on your bulletin board. For instance have a sweet corn request sheet. The customer provides their name, telephone number and number of bushels or dozens of corn they desire. When the sweet corn is ready to harvest, call them and set up a pick up date. Set up the same meeting time with several customers and have everything picked and ready to go when they arrive. This system works well with corn, tomatoes, grapes, peaches, beans, peas and many other things.

The Discount Table

Use a discount table to sell yesterday’s vegetables or the soon to be discarded items. Sell them at deep discounts, but on a separate table. Make sure the table is away from your regular priced items. Put a big sign at the discounted table that says “Discount Table — This table only!” Make it clear or some folks will get confused and think that everything is discounted.

Start Small & Grow

Why invest a whole lot of money in getting started? In the beginning most of you will learn a lot. If you are willing to try out the honor system my advice to you is to start small and grow into it. Be patient! Get started and your customers will come.

When you first get started you will probably have no idea what to expect. At first you will wonder, will a lot of customers stop and shop? How long will it take to catch on in my community? What will people think of my honor system? Just hang in there and keep trying.

The answers to these and many other questions will become apparent only by getting started. It will not take very long for you to get your answers. So start small and grow.


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Honor System Marketing, which is written by Jeffery Mcpherson and published by Acres U.S.A, 2011.