Just a Taste: The Value of Vendor Demos and Sampling

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Performing in-store demos is not only a valuable endeavor for brands that want to promote their products but can also be a great way for retailers to engage with customers. However, it takes more than just a few free samples to sell the natural products consumer. Here is what you need to know to get the most out of your in-store demos.

Brand Driven, Retailer Controlled
Vendors pay good money to have their products demoed in a store. “Demo dollars are expensive for the vendor, since the cost of fielding a live body for a day — travel, meals, possibly lodging — is significant,” explains Jay Jacobowitz, founder and president of Retail Insights, Brattleboro, VT and merchandising editor for WholeFoods Magazine. “Even a third-party service doing the demo is a significant out-of-pocket cost for the vendor, so the return on investment must be there; meaning you need to be able to move cases of product.”

For this reason, demos are mostly conducted in larger retail chains and why independent retailers need to be the “squeaky wheel,” says Jacobowitz. If you’re an independent retailer who wants to demo an established line of products, you have to make it worth their while. However, the demo is not just about the vendor. “The reason retailers have promotions is to try to build excitement, product awareness and try to encourage or invite consumers to buy something else or more of something,” says Daniel Lohman, CPSA, Category Management Solutions, Littleton, CO.

Particularly in natural products retailers where customers are well informed and reputation is very important, demos have to be done right. “Some retailers say they will only let professional demo companies come in and that’s a good and a bad thing because those companies hire people off the street who may know and understand the product, or may not,” explains Lohman. Therefore, retailers need to establish a relationship with the vendor, distributor or third party company conducting the demos in order to maintain some kind of quality control.

The mistakes that vendors or third party demo companies can make are rather simple, but consequential, the first being that they hire someone uneducated about the product. If the person conducting the demo is unable to answer simple questions like whether something is gluten free or be able to convey what the product offers that is unique to its competition, this is bad for both the vendor and the hosting retailer. It does not build excitement and consumers’ awareness of the product may become tainted. Consumers are naturally curious and when confronted with something truly interesting and engaging with someone knowledgeable and passionate, the chances of a purchase are great. “If you can get a consumer to try a product, whether they’re thinking about buying it or not, the chances of them buying that product goes up dramatically,” says Lohman.

However, if a demo is being particularly effective, problems can occur along the way as well. “A lot of brands don’t think about the incremental sales they’re going to get and therefore don’t always have enough product on hand,” says Lohman. Jacobowitz agrees, recommending that there be a case stack adjacent to the demo station, however, “less is more,” he says. “There was that famous study done where there were two demos, one with six jams, and one with 24 jams. Which one sold more? The one with six jams,” Jacobowitz explains. This does not mean that one should run out of product, but simply create the illusion of limited supply. One should always be able to provide customers with product at the demo station, do not point them down to aisle to pick up the product themselves.

An effective demo should also be inviting and customers should not feel like they are being forced into an interaction. “Make sure there is sufficient circulation area in the aisles immediately surrounding the demo area, so that customers can approach, but also bypass if they wish, without ‘butt-bumping’ into the next customer,” explains Jacobowitz.

Timing is another crucial factor for effective demos. Vendors and retailers need to demo products in a way that makes sense such as seasonally or surrounding a holiday or event. “I see products get demoed at the wrong season of the year,” says Lohman, and unfortunately even the big brands don’t quite meet the mark when it comes to demos. “For example, it doesn’t make sense for a brand in my mind to demo chips during the Super Bowl because consumers are going to buy them anyway. Demo the week or so before to build that brand awareness,” he explains. “Frito does this all the time, buy one get one free during the super bowl when it’s the one time of the year where they probably could charge twice as much and people would pay it.”

Vendor demos should also be spaced out and certainly should not be the vendor’s only promotional strategy for a brand. For example, says Lohman, “if you have a product and you promote your product six times a year and you demoed it two or three of those times, that would be better than just demoing it five times and not having a promotion strategy.” A demo should always be coordinated with a promotion. For this reason, Lohman suggests enhancing a demo’s effectiveness by taking what may be called a holistic approach. “A demo that is done in cooperation and coordination with other vehicles such as social media, feature ad, displays, end caps, that’s when you really get your biggest bang for the buck,” he says. “That would not only be a win-win for the brand but for the retailer and the retailer will like that because at the end of the day, the retailer gets credit from the consumer perspective for selling the right brand or having the brand consumers want to buy.”

A Retailer’s Perspective
By understanding what makes a demo poor and what makes a demo effective, you can take control of the process and help create a positive experience for all parties involved. It also helps to follow the example of a fellow retailer, especially one well versed in demos. PCC Natural Markets, based in Seattle, WA and winner of WholeFoods’ 2016 Retailer of the Year is one such retailer and it’s making the effort to improve its stores’ demo experience.

“Originally, we were scheduling around 500 demos a month,” explains Justine Busse, center store director for the market. “The companies were just going right through to a scheduler…and weren’t being vetted.” While these demos were driving sales, she says, the demo program PCC had did not necessarily represent the market’s values and “we weren’t driving the conversation about what products we thought were awesome.”

Driving the conversation simply means taking greater control of the process so that demos become an extension of your store’s mission and not just a promotion. PCC, for example, raised its standards. “What we did was create a very stringent criteria that vendors would have to adhere to,” says Busse. “Some of the criteria include things like it can’t be a third party demo company, it has to be a representative of the company that’s doing the demo.”

This brings up the earlier point about ensuring that shoppers get a demo conducted by a knowledgeable person. “Just standing at a table and handing out samples; the expectations around that are really different than someone who’s representing their product and really has ownership and pride in the product,” Busse says. “That’s way more of a loyalty building interaction.”

This is particularly important when introducing a novel food or food category. In the natural space, gluten free products are a great example. There was a time, believe it or not, when many people did not know about, understand or simply dismissed gluten free diets and gluten free products. However, since then, it has grown significantly capturing a large share of consumers who may or may not need to eat gluten free for health reasons. What can we attribute to this rapid growth? Well, according to a 2013 survey conducted by Mintel in cooperation with the Specialty Food Association, of 665 respondents, 41% said their reason for purchasing gluten free products was sampling. This is a significant number and it’s important because sampling allowed customers to try first hand a product they may have found unusual otherwise. Of the respondents, 48% attributed their purchase to product promotions. This also calls to mind Lohman’s advice to pair demos and sampling with promotions to reinforce a product’s value and further increase the likelihood of purchase.

Along with vetting vendor demos, the PCC has also developed an in-store fresh sampling program. Despite conducting a quarter of the vendor demos it had previously, with the addition of the fresh sampling program, Busse says the store conducting this pilot program feels more lively. In a way, it is more lively. The fresh sampling takes place in the produce, deli and meat departments, each providing something for shoppers to try at different times of day and days of the week.

The deli department, which makes everything from scratch, provides samples of bakery items in the morning and then salads and sandwiches during the day. The produce department puts out items that are specific to the season and the meats department grills off items on the weekends that are new, on ad or in season as well. All of these are passive sampling stations, but they encourage natural interaction and discourse between shoppers and staff that is intrinsic to the market’s culture. For example, because samples at the meat department are placed in full view of staff who are easily accessible, engagement becomes a natural part of the sampling experience. It is similar for the produce department as well. “The produce guys are out on the floor so much that they’re engaging with customers anyway so I think there is more engagement even though it is a passive sample,” says Busse. “We’ve always had the culture of offering a sample, cutting up an apple or an orange or something for somebody to try.”

PCC is not alone in seeing the value of sampling at the deli and other departments. For example, in a 2016 survey conducted by Progressive Grocer of retail deli executives, when asked what they believe is the single most important strategy for growing deli traffic, 64.6% said product sampling and 34.2% said active sampling and events. It’s also significant to note that 84.8% said engaged associates. This means the number one strategy is having an engaged and knowledgeable staff building a rapport with customers and the number two strategy is sampling. Combine the two, and you have a surefire way to get the most out of the fresh food and deli section.

While this program may be a natural next step in PCC’s culture, that does not mean it is a breeze to implement. The reality is that it’s a culture change for the staff,” explains Busse. “You have to do training around health and safety and you have to make sure that you have the right equipment and signage, then you have to really hold them accountable to what the expectation is so that they are creating a schedule, tracking shrink and tracking how much labor is going into the program.”

That is why doing a pilot program is crucial, so that details  can be hammered out and processes can be streamlined before implementing throughout the grocery chain. Even if you do not have multiple stores, implementing new processes on a smaller scale can be a good way to gauge interest and understand the right way to do things.

Also keep in mind that an effective program is an easy-to-execute program. While there will be a learning curve initially, ultimately the goal is to create something streamlined. “What we’ve learned, once we get all the nuts and bolts ironed out, is to not over process,” Busse says. “Create a good program that’s pretty easy to execute and roll out but don’t make so many rules and processes around it that it’s hard to execute.” Simply put, do it right, but don’t over think it.

It’s also important to avoid bad habits. For example, sampling used to be a way to promote items that were getting to the end of their shelf life so that could be sold off. Not so for PCC. “We completely broke that down and it’s not allowed at all,” Busse says. “We only sample stuff that’s brand new, that’s fresh…rather than this idea that our culture has had in the past of getting through product that was long on.” While natural products are entering the mainstream, the dichotomy between mainstream and natural products retailers is an important one to maintain in order to stand apart and continue to attract the savvy natural consumer and natural converts. That means putting quality first out of respect to your clientele and because your customers can tell the difference.

While it may seem simple, the idea of putting out samples, PCC has already seen a positive effect. “I was talking to the assistant store director who’s working on [the program] with me and he was telling me about how regular customers are coming in and talking to them about how they’re loving the sampling program and that it’s bringing them into the store more often because they’re looking forward to trying what’s new and fresh,” relays Busse. Not only is it encouraging people to shop more often but shoppers are also becoming more adventurous in their purchasing. According to Busse, by allowing customers to more easily sample produce, they are beginning to discover delicious but unusual produce that previously would not sell as well. “The produce guy was telling me that he sold three cases of kumquats over two days as they were sampling,” she says.

This is exactly the way demos should work, says Jacobowitz. “More than just selling the particular product, offering a demo sends the message that the retailer is adding value to the shopping experience — feeding the customer, educating the customer, or both,” he explains. “The net effect of that on the customer is, ‘Wow, it is fun to shop here, this store cares about my business.’ And, of course, if you’re not starving, you will relax and linger longer.” WF

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