3 Lessons from the Umbrella Lady

This is one of those: “the only lessons I ever needed, I learned from my first job” kind of posts.

My first job was sort of unusual for a suburban kid from Edison, NJ. I worked at a farm market officially named Giles Farm Market, but know by everyone in the area as “The Umbrella Lady.” The place was one of those local hole-in-the-wall kind of places, no signs, just an ancient, round picnic table with an old yellow and white umbrella on it when she was open. The produce was displayed in old peck or bushel baskets, not for effect, but because that’s what was what you did. There was a an old general store counter with an even older scale on it, and an electric cash register that she upgraded to in the 60’s that still had a hand crank on the side just in case the power went out.

By the time I was old enough to get the job there, Peg “The Umbrella Lady” Giles had been in the business of fresh produce for decades, sometimes it seemed like 100 decades, but in reality it was probably 3 or 4. My first day was fairly disastrous, after all, what 14-year-old knows the difference between fava beans and green beans, let alone how to handle musk melons or shuck corn. At the end of my first day, she called me aside to tell me I was probably not going to make the cut, but if I was interested in working, and learning, to come back the next day.

Lesson #1

Showing up is half the battle – She was genuinely surprised to see me that second morning, but it showed her that I was not only interested, but willing to learn the “right way” to do things. What it showed me was that a little effort goes a long way. I worked for Peg for four years before I left for college, and in that time I saw quite a few people come and go. About half of the kids that started working there never came back (or were asked not to come back) for day 2: it was her version of trial by fire. It was relatively easy to get a day 1 at The Umbrella Lady’s, day 2’s were much harder to come by.

Lesson #2

Word of Mouth is Essential – I have to admit, it took quite a little while for the second lesson to make itself apparent to me. Everyone in North Edison, Metuchen, and South Plainfield knew about The Umbrella Lady… everyone. But Peg never did any advertising for the market. Every single customer was there because someone else told them about her. I’m not even sure if she was listed in the yellow pages (I may be dating myself, but this was well before the internet kids.) Shopping at Peg’s was the way it used to be, at least that’s what her long-time customers would tell me; she had the best produce, checking through every ear of Jersey corn and every Jersey tomato herself. People knew that and they told their friends and neighbors. She didn’t need any fancy advertising, just an old umbrella, and an open sign.

Lesson #3

Social Networking Works. – The newest lesson I’ve learned from working at the Umbrella Lady’s is about social networking. There were literally hundreds of regulars there, Peg knew most of them (like my mother) on a Mrs. So and So basis, but there were a group of “super regulars” who didn’t need to come in on a regular basis, they just got special treatment whenever they did. She knew these folks on a nickname or first name basis, like Fodder Dear, who was a shift supervisor at a large manufacturer where her late husband once worked, sure there was a connection to her late husband, but he also supervised 300 or more people, definitely a gatekeeper. There was “the golfer” who was the local gadfly at the country club, the real estate developer who was her key into new folks moving into the area, the author, who’s circle of friends seemed to be unending, and even the “sexy senior citizen”, who spent her time at the senior center telling her friends about what a great place the Umbrella Lady’s was.

The other part of her social networking strategy was brilliant: around Labor Day every year, the democrats, the republicans, the fire department, the police department, and the rescue squads all had their annual summer picnics, and every one of them served corn, tomatoes, watermelon, and whatnot from the Umbrella Lady. She didn’t discriminate when it came time for the picnics, they all got the produce donation from Peg. I think she may have been the most connected person in town.

Sure these lessons are pretty “old school” but each still works in the Marketing 2.0 world we’re in now. Peg Giles, visionary marketer.