"All the world's a stage...," Shakespeare wrote.
Nowadays, that observation might even apply to the supermarket aisle, where there's a growing emphasis on using flashy product sampling and demonstration events to entice shoppers to buy.
But it's not easy turning the supermarket floor into the type of theater that can inspire consumers to pick up items they otherwise wouldn't. It calls on talents and logistic abilities that don't necessarily come naturally to grocers more comfortable with building displays and stocking shelves.
The challenge is especially formidable when it comes to sampling fresh foods that require cooking preparation. Fresh meats, seafood, produce and bakery items can benefit mightily from sampling, particularly when it features a how-to-cook or prepare demonstration. But getting items efficiently prepared, handled and handed out in a safe, sanitary way can require facilities, fixtures and labor that few retailers have on hand.
At Draeger's Supermarkets, a San Francisco Bay Area upscale chain, on-floor sampling is kept as simple as possible, said co-owner Richard Draeger. The chain uses the demos as a way to sample the proprietary marinades and sausages the company markets, as well as cheeses and other types of meats.
"Usually they're preparing items using not much more than an electric skillet," he said. "We see it as our job to demonstrate and describe products and get the customer's reaction, not to be up to our elbows in chopping, dicing and cooking."
Fresh foods sampling challenges can be minimized for retailers fortunate enough to have a food preparation kitchen on site. Upscale supermarkets that serve food on-site can use the kitchens to prepare foods, which can then be whisked out to the sampling area, and kept hot or cold using more basic fixtures.
For some supermarkets, though, the on-site kitchen has turned into a great way to take fresh foods sampling and demonstration to a new level. At Draeger's, for example, a full kitchen connected to an open seating area is used to host a cooking school. Products ranging from stuffed pork loins and lamb saddles to homemade crab cakes and the company's own sausages are elaborately prepared and sampled. Attendees get a close-up look at ingredients and the exact method of preparation with the help of an audio system and television monitors. Such a controlled classroom environment, away from the sales floor, is the best place to do sampling that involves a lot of preparation, Draeger said.
"Demos like that are the best way to sell product -- cooking it fresh and telling the customer what the dish's components are and how to prepare it," he said.
Earthfare Healthy Supermarkets, a six-store natural food chain in Asheville, N.C., also uses an on-site kitchen/meeting room to prepare and demo products for those who enroll in a healthy cooking class. Michael Cianciarulo, president and chief executive officer, said up to 170 people have participated in cooking demonstrations co-sponsored by suppliers of products like organically produced fresh turkey and chicken.
"If you have someone in a community room for an hour and a half, you have them and their attention," he said. "It's not like just passing out a product sample. We're helping to build our brand by doing this."
Supermarkets eager to do more sophisticated sampling have also turned to product suppliers and demonstration companies to develop programs using their own special equipment, labor and sampling expertise.
At Gelson's/Mayfair Supermarkets, Encino, Calif., the 18-store chain occasionally stages Samplefests that can draw several dozen vendors. During the weekend event, marketers or their demonstration agents bring in their own fixtures and hand out free samples. While many of the vendors sample shelf-stable products, a growing number of participants sample foods prepared in real time, in front of the shopper.
One of the recent fresh foods newcomers to the Gelson's Samplefest lineup is Melissa's World Variety Produce. The Los Angeles marketer of specialty fruits and vegetables sets up a custom-designed demonstration fixture that incorporates an electrical cooktop, a splatter guard, a slatboard front for produce literature and other features that allow the demonstrator to make Asian stir-fry dishes prepared with specialty produce items ranging from bok choy to the red-fleshed kara kara orange. So far, the unit has been used at two Samplefests held in stores in Pasadena and Irvine.
Melissa's executive Peter Steinbrick says the demo station was designed by an equipment company, with the input of Melissa's company chefs. The aim was to develop a mobile unit that would enable the company to participate in more in-store sampling programs that would benefit both Melissa's and its retail partners.
"It's our way of showing a commitment on our end to help build demand for our products," he said.
Aside from designing and installing an electrical hookup that allows a power cord to run from the ceiling to the cooking unit on a pulley system that can be easily and safely retracted, Gelson's/Mayfair left the demo station design, setup and operation to Melissa's. While the value of such demo units is becoming clearer, company President Robert Stiles said the supermarket has no plans to acquire its own units or launch its own store-managed demo programs.
"We're letting Melissa's take the lead on this, and if it's successful we'll roll it out to other stores," Stiles said. "It would be great to be able to do more of this on our own, because sampling really increases interest in the store, but these units can be very costly -- probably $5,000 at the least -- an amount that would quickly add up for 18 stores, on top of the cost of adding staff."
Companies that specialize in staging product demos are another option for retailers who want to move into fancier demos without a making a major investment in the needed fixtures and labor. Some, like Retail Food Design, can bring elaborate preparation stations to the selling floor. The Rochester, N.Y., firm has worked with equipment companies to design and manufacture customized stations that carry price tags in the $5,000 to $7,000 range.
Although company principal Mark Leenhouts stresses that many demos can be effective with fairly low-tech props, he said being able to demonstrate exactly how fresh items are prepared, cooked and used to make a dish takes sampling to a higher, more useful plane.
"With fresh foods, it used to be that stores would take the simple approach, and go with what was easiest to demo or whatever the supplier would give credits for staging a demo," Leenhouts said. "Now it's different. You have to focus on what you're teaching the customer. They need to learn about the food, know cooking techniques and get product-pairing suggestions. That's the best way to stimulate sales and move new products."
To help accomplish that, Leenhouts has worked closely with Corsair Display Systems. The manufacturer, also based in Rochester, has designed demo fixtures that incorporate features ranging from adjustable mirrors that give shoppers a bird's-eye view of cooktop preparation, and warming drawers for keeping products like bread warm and moist, to chafing dishes that keep products warm using a butane burner and a space for a television that can play product loops.
Some also have incorporated refrigeration, sinks and design features such as canopies. The typical portable unit the company has designed for Leenhouts has a footprint measuring about 3 feet high, 3 feet deep and is 4 to 6 feet in width.
While demand for such units is chiefly coming from demonstration companies and food product marketers, there are signs that interest from selected retailers is mounting. Corsair President Dave Mansfield said he's fielded some inquiries direct from supermarket operators. Likewise, Pat McMahon, president of Barker Co., a Keosauqua, Iowa, company that also makes demo stations, said a growing number of upscale retailers such as Lunds/Byerly's in Minnesota, Wild Oats and Raley's in California, have expressed an interest in possibly investing in the units.
"Most see a price tag of around $8,000 for our units," McMahon said. "But these could possibly be an appropriate purchase for an upscale store with a high traffic count. We've been trying to promote these fixtures lately at industry trade shows."
Ease of use and safety are some of the features that Barker incorporates into its units. Some, for example, utilize magnetic induction to heat only the cooking vessel, resulting in a safer working environment for demonstrators and shoppers.
Even as demo units like Barker's become more high-tech, fresh foods demos that incorporate preparation still can be done more simply. Many demo companies and food marketers still rely on the basic four-legged table and rudimentary preparation tools. Companies like Full Service Deli Distributors, based in Orange County, Calif., use these kinds of low-tech preparation tools to sample a wide range of meat products.
Indeed, as a regional distributor of Boar's Head meats and cheese products, Full Service Deli hires its own demonstrators who prepare and sample a wide range of Boar's Head meats at supermarkets like Gelson's, among others. Because most of the products are sold pre-cooked, there's less need for elaborate preparation and fewer food safety concerns that can mandate tighter controls on keeping foods in a safe temperature range.
"The sampling will require things like a cutting board, a skillet, butane burner cookers, chafing dishes and even mini hot-dog type carts that use hot water for warming," Christian said. "These are easy to use because you can set them up almost anywhere, and you don't need power. Our demonstrators need to be as portable as possible."