A great sampling program goes beyond the tired cliché of weekend trips to cavernous big box stores where customers roam the aisles gobbling up random bites. Having a well-designed sampling program can be a strong draw for shoppers, give a delightful experience, and immediately impact sales. Getting the most out of sampling requires an approach more strategic than just dumping a bag of chips in a bowl, however. A successful sampling program includes a three-pronged approach— with active demos, passive samples, and spontaneous samples.
Active demoing with product samples is a powerful tool that combines the energy of personality with the tasting of terrific foods. It also requires scheduling that complements the marketing or promotional plan. Marketing and promotional teams should work together to create an active demo schedule that considers the season, store events, price promotions, and trends. Advance planning by seasonal quarters can help keep marketing and operations tasks ticking smoothly and ahead of time.
Demo coordinator Brighton Litjens is a member of the Ashland Food Co-op’s marketing department. He has weekly huddles with each of the department managers, gives them the week’s snapshot of demos happening in the store, and invites their input. He also uses a Google calendar to create demo events, so everyone can see which demo is happening at the co-op’s in-store kiosks at what time.
Plan active demos during the busiest times and days of the week, when you’ll be sure to move product fast. Passing out manufacturers’ or house coupons can help turn your samples even faster.
Active demos can showcase high-quality products that require some explanation, such as condiment olive oils or mostardas, along with artisanal cheeses, craft beers, wine, and hot deli items. Make sure scheduling is done weeks in advance to allow for appropriate ordering. You don’t want to run out of a tasty goodie!
Building a great active demo program requires some up front labor investment, but it can be well worth it. Close the deal by having someone with a warm personality passing out product and telling its story. Deploy friendly, knowledgeable staff for active demos—people who really shine in front of others and enjoy interacting with the public. An apathetic or too introverted person will do nothing for even the yummiest treat.
Litjens says, “I make myself approachable with a big smile, good posture, and am always ready to talk to everyone. It’s not about making a sale for me. I always go into it with creating a relationship, educating, and inspiring a shopper with a treat. If the person truly connects with the product as well as connecting with me in a positive way, then that will naturally lead to a sale. And that’s a wonderful thing!”
Another way to tell a product story—and save on labor—is to schedule vendor demos. These can be especially powerful when the vendor is local or artisanal. Make sure to coordinate well in advance so that the vendor and staff are clear about what the co-op will supply (a table, napkins, etc.) versus what the vendor will supply (free product, forks, etc.). The date, time, and length of each demo should be agreed upon in writing. Pro tip from Litjens: “I reach out to companies and ask them to donate product for me to sample out. I have maybe spent $15 in 10 months towards demos. That way we don’t have to pay for it, the company gets free exposure, and their product is in front of our 3,000 shoppers a day.”
You can take nearly any seasonally relevant theme, add at least five active samples, plenty of promotion, and a wild card such as music, games, or prizes, and you’ll have a fun sampling event that will draw in shoppers. Think about what’s particularly relevant to your co-op, its geography or history, and get creative from there.
These days, passive samples are a basic customer expectation for the grocery shopping experience. While relatively easy to plan and execute, passive samples are easily forgotten or lost amid competing priorities. Often this comes down to unclear expectations regarding whose responsibility it is to set up and maintain passive samples.
While some co-ops have the luxury of dedicated sampling staff, passive samples are best executed by staff from the product’s department. Successful passive sampling requires knowledge of stock levels, seasonality, and current flavor and quality. It also requires frequent monitoring, tidying, and restocking of the featured product. These skills and tasks are already familiar for department staff and are easily integrated into daily routines.
Products that are ready-to-eat or require little preparation are conducive to passive sampling. Though it may be tempting for ambitious staff to arrange a magazine-worthy platter of carefully composed sample hors d’oeuvres, simple and low maintenance foods are a more practical choice. Think: cherries, grapes, apple slices, cheese cubes, salami slices and crackers, or vegetables and dip.
Even the simplest samples can delight shoppers! Use gleaned fruits to have flavored water on hand for shoppers to enjoy while they’re in the store. Brew a pot of a featured coffee to welcome shoppers with sample-sized cups on a cold day.
Cleanliness and safety are, of course, essential. Care must be taken to keep passive samples impeccably fresh and appetizing, using serving tongs, covered domes, clear signage, and nearby trash and/or compost receptacles. No matter which item is being sampled, be sure it is placed directly next to an abundant display of the featured product. A passive sample without a display is just a buffet.
Open that bag of chips! When a shopper is deciding between or is curious about a product, give department staff the go-ahead to open it and let her taste it, then passively sample out the rest. She’ll be impressed that you did that! And you’ve just connected with a customer who is more than likely to be happy because she’s walking out of the store with a product she enjoys rather than something she may not (that she may even return). Being generous like this up front pays for itself in the long run.
Salad dressings, produce, chips and dips, and cookies make for great spontaneously sampled items. Wine, beer, and higher priced vinegars and oils are not recommended—these are more suited to active demos that require explanation. Staff should be in tune with shoppers: be on the lookout for those seeking a particular flavor or style of product. Great spontaneous sampling requires staff to actively listen to and pay attention to the needs and desires of shoppers, developing the ability to build rapport with them.
Although spontaneous sampling can initially feel odd at some co-ops, and may require a bit of a culture shift, the spirit of generosity it invokes really is impressive and memorable to shoppers. Co-op leadership needs to make it crystal clear that spontaneous sampling is not only an accepted practice but it is encouraged. Managers should lead the way so that staff get used to seeing spontaneous sampling on the store floor. Make sure this practice is part of customer service training and written into any procedural manuals as an expectation of great service.
A great sampling program requires coordination among marketing, promotions, and operations staff. While passive, active, and spontaneous sampling are all useful independently, together they build a reputation with shoppers that the co-op is a fun place to shop—where you’re sure to taste something delicious.