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The Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market is among the oldest operations of its kind in Canada but it wants to use modern technologies and strategies to reach customers.Lane Farguson/Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market

An East Coast business school and a historic farmers' market have teamed up to test ways to attract retail customers and share that knowledge with small-business owners across the region.

With the retail store of the Halifax Port Authority's Seaport Farmers' Market as their petri dish, students and researchers at the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary's University in Halifax are set to work with local producers and artisans, technology companies and others on digital and other strategies to attract customers.

"This partnership gives us a living laboratory in a real store," say Ramesh Venkat, director of the business school's David Sobey Centre for Innovation in Retailing and Services, of a new agreement with the Seaport Farmers' Market. "It will allow us to test innovations, run experiments and gather data while the store is operating."

Read more: A digital farmers' market brings local foods to Ontarians

Future research topics are under discussion, but could include an assessment of the value of small video screens on shelves to tell the story of local food producers and artisans whose wares are sold in The Shelf, the farmers' market retail store. Dr. Venkat says researchers also may want to evaluate the impact of other technology, such as specially-fitted glasses worn by consumers to see what attracts their attention in the store.

The impetus for the partnership dates to last year when Julie Chaisson, executive director of the Seaport Farmers' Market, and a colleague attended a new week-long certificate program at Sobey's retail innovation centre.

"You get a week where you can be outside of where you are working and to think big and dream and think without any boundaries of what could or couldn't take place," she says. "When we heard that the Sobey [retail centre] was looking at doing an innovation lab and looking for space to get some real live data to be able test things, The Shelf instantly came to mind."

The farmers' market, believed to be the oldest continuing operating venue of its kind in Canada, is located in the ship cruise district of the port and draws about 900,000 visitors a year, generating about $21-million in sales annually, according to Ms. Chaisson.

"If we are going to have people from all over the world, we feel we have tremendous opportunity to promote local producers and local products," she says.

The market also serves as an incubator for local businesses, working with as many as 250 vendors, she adds. "Because we are the largest farmers' market in Nova Scotia, we take seriously our belonging to farmers' markets [in the province] and being able to say, 'How will this [partnership with Sobey] benefit the small businesses in our market and within Halifax? Can the information be shared to grow small business within our province?'"

Over time, she hopes Sobey researchers can shed light on the future of farmers' markets using technology-enhanced tools to attract virtual customers from around the world in addition to those shopping in person.

Dr. Venkat expects to recruit six to eight students and several professors for research projects at The Shelf, enabling them to work outside the classroom.

"It's definitely a big shift from the traditional model that is largely classroom-based and theory-based," he says. "This gets them [students and researchers] out in the field where they have access to real data. … It is hands-on learning."

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