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    Not-So-Random Samples

    By tailoring the way they offer customers free tastes of new products, grocers can make such events even more profitable.

    By Bridget Goldschmidt, EnsembleIQ
    Many of Hispanic grocery chain Mi Pueblo’s sampling events are tied into holiday occasions.

    Everyone knows that sampling can boost sales for supermarkets, but how exactly does it work, and what?s the best way to go about it? For San Jose, Calif.-based Mi Pueblo Food Center, which operates 15 Hispanic-oriented stores in the Golden State?s Bay Area, Central Coast and Central Valley regions, a key strategy is frequency.

    ?We believe that sampling needs to be done on a continuous basis,? explains Mi Pueblo founder and Chairman Juvenal Chavez. ?It?s an effective tool to not only sample products, but also build an emotional connection with consumers. In-store demonstrations turn an ordinary task, such as grocery shopping, into a fun and engaging experience. At Mi Pueblo, sampling has also helped retain customers and improve loyalty, while, of course, driving sales and increasing average transaction amounts.?

    The grocer?s sampling efforts primarily take place in its meat, bakery, deli and tortillería departments, with themed events that relate to Hispanic holidays, introduce new products, or highlight items in season proving especially popular with customers. ?We understand that consumers eat with their sight first, and having attractive, fresh, well-displayed items is the first step in capturing their attention,? notes Chavez. ?From there, each department provides a unique sensorial experience to consumers: tasting the product, smelling freshly baked bread, the texture of freshly made guacamole. From our experience, planned sampling helps improve sales and drives traffic to different departments.?

    Mi Pueblo begins gauging the success of these events before they?ve even ended. ?The effectiveness of a sampling program is first measured while the demonstration is taking place, by determining whether a consumer takes a product or not ? that?s the first indication of a program?s success,? says Chavez, ?and over time, the program is measured by the product that leaves the shelves.?

    In Chavez?s view, to be effective, ?sampling programs need to be well planned, thought out and executed impeccably. To accomplish this, brands need to have a clear objective: What kind of impact do you want to have on the consumer? From there, it?s important to create a unique and memorable experience that not only conveys the value of the product, but engages with consumers on a deeper, more emotional level.?

    Allegiance Retail Services, a retailer-owned cooperative whose members? banners include Foodtown, Freshtown Marketplace and La Bella Marketplace, employs an on-site demonstration coordinator, provided by North Andover, Mass.-based C.A. Courtesy, to work with its vendor partners, corporate associates and stores. ?This ensures that all the details are covered, events are scheduled on optimal dates, product distributions are coordinated to support sampling and selling, and stores are notified in a timely manner,? explains Sheryl Kirsch, manager of sales and promotions at Iselin, N.J.-based Allegiance.

    Foodtown, which recently relaunched such in-store efforts, now offers ?a variety of sampling programs to appeal to all our vendor partners,? notes Kirsch. ?A solo demo highlights one featured item, while a co-demo is a great way to cross-merchandise multiple products/departments in the store. All sampling events enhance the customers? shopping experience and are an excellent tool for increasing sales, allowing customers to ?try before they buy,? launching new item introductions, delivering a higher level of product awareness and educating consumers.?

    Results gleaned from these events appear to justify her enthusiasm: One out of three customers purchased an item after sampling it, scan data showed increased sales for a period of six weeks following a demonstration, there were three to five times the number of regular sales of the sampled product during the week of the demo, and there were 50 percent more sales of the sampled product for the next two weeks.

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    C.A. Courtesy, which also works with the likes of Market Basket, Balducci?s and Whole Foods Market, measures its sampling events via two processes: live consumer feedback and an inventory count. ?Our vendors value both the comments from a consumer and the final inventory numbers post-sampling event,? say CEO Claire Bishop, Account Manager Lexi Schiff and VP Sales and Marketing Scott Bishop, who collaborated on responses to Progressive Grocer for this article. ?Our results have revealed that when a product is sampled, it increases brand awareness and there is a definite sales momentum.?

    The company has found that ?sampling [works] for every type of supermarket operator, as long as the retailer has customers to try the samples. ? When space is an issue in a retailer, C.A. Courtesy works with the vendor to create an innovative sampling experience. Ways that we have offset spacing issues have been to have C.A. Courtesy brand ambassadors butler the samples throughout the store so that way customers could still have an opportunity to sample the product.?

    Bishop, Schiff and Bishop believe that the best way a grocer can lay the groundwork for a successful sampling program ?is to work closely with buyers to ensure that proper allocations have been put into the system to support an in-store sampling event. DSD vendors are also integral to the support of a sampling event, by making sure daily deliveries are done on time.? They add that at C.A. Courtesy, this process ?is streamlined by [the company?s] proprietary online scheduling system.?

    For his part, David Rich, president and CEO of New York-based customer experience management firm ICC/Decision Services, points out that there are several types of supermarket sampling programs, among them active and passive sampling. ?Active sampling would be defined as a brand ambassador engaging customers with a specific product,? he clarifies, ?while passive could include a covered cheese sample dish or an offer from a store associate to allow a customer to try an item they are inquiring about, i.e. deli meat, pastries in the bakery, etc.?

    Based on his years of experience with active sampling programs, Rich has noted ?an evolution from the majority of products being national brands (new flavors, extensions, etc.) to recipe ideas and private label, including produce. Rather than serving up the new favored meatballs on a hot plate, event personnel are describing the varieties of apples available this season and how they pair with local cheeses. This goes beyond the bulleted talking points of the historical demo and creates a more engaging/conversational experience.?

    While he observes that ?we have been told time and time again that there is most often a lift in same-day sales tied directly to sampling programs,? Rich concedes that ?the lasting effects are harder to measure. Many times, companies look at sales X weeks prior to the event, then X weeks after ? ?Was there a lift beyond demo day???

    Profitable sampling programs, according to Rich, ?should be taking place in high-traffic stores and during high-traffic shopping periods in order to create as much exposure to the event/product as possible, with retailers keeping in mind such important factors as communication of the dates and times of events both in-store and through social media, and a highly engaged staff.? Regarding the latter point, Rich says, ?Anyone can put crackers out on a tray, but having staff that brings customers into the event, keeps it fun and encourages conversation will greatly increase the number of samples distributed and the success of the event.?

    Overall, according to Giovanni DeMeo, VP of global marketing and analytics at San Diego-based Interactions, which handles in-store product demonstrations (which he differentiates from purely sampling events as ?showing what the product is, how it works and what it does?) for such grocers as Albertsons, Giant Eagle, Stop & Shop, Meijer, Wegmans Food Markets, Weis Markets and Hy-Vee, ?in-store product demonstrations and sampling programs have the highest lift in comparison to any other in-store medium, more than temporary price reductions, coupons, end cap displays and ad circulars.?

    As for how success is measured, DeMeo says that ?it?s determined by the client. For example, a retailer typically wants to make sure that the shopper has a positive experience, they are exposed to new products. ? Retailers are looking at category sales lift as well as share of market. They use the same type of metrics as manufacturers ? but they also factor in gaining new shoppers to the category within a retail environment.?

    To create a successful retail sampling program, DeMeo recommends ?a multi-phase approach. First, make sure the product is available and on hand. We know that there are spikes associated with doing in-store product demos and sampling, and that?s what makes it so important to ensure that enough products are on hand to meet that foreseeable demand.

    ?There is also the necessity to give shoppers and consumers the awareness that these events are going on, and the best way to do that for retailers is with consistency,? he continues, echoing the approach of Mi Pueblo?s Chavez. ?Retailers that consistently implement in-store product demonstrations recognize a much higher lift with individual events than those retailers that do them on an ad hoc basis. The most important thing for a retailer is to create that experience and to do it consistently.?

    ?The effectiveness of a sampling program is first measured while the demonstration is taking place, by determining whether a consumer takes a product or not ? that?s the first indication of a program?s success ? and over time, the program is measured by the product that leaves the shelves.?
    ?Juvenal Chavez, Mi Pueblo Food Center

    ?All sampling events enhance the customers? shopping experience and are an excellent tool for increasing sales, allowing customers to ?try before they buy,? launching new item introductions, delivering a higher level of product awareness and educating consumers.?
    ?Sheryl Kirsch, Allegiance Retail Services

    By Bridget Goldschmidt, EnsembleIQ
    • About Bridget Goldschmidt In addition to serving as Progressive Grocer’s Managing Editor, Bridget writes many print and digital features encompassing a range of grocery and fresh categories across the store. Bridget also enjoys on-site reporting assignments at such key industry events as the New York Fancy Food Show and the International Boston Seafood Show, in addition to visiting stores for PG’s prestigious Store of the Month feature. In her years with the magazine, she has developed into a knowledgeable voice on grocery industry trends, sought by such distinguished publications as The New York Times. Follow her at www.twitter.com/BGoldschmidtPG.

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