PITTSBURGH -- Giant Eagle kicked off the new year with a lineup of sampling events in the produce departments.
The company described "Taste the Difference of Giant Eagle Produce" as an effective tool for introducing products while educating shoppers on proper selection, storage and preparation.
"These sampling events have been well received by customers, and these events provide a valuable means to drive trial purchases from customers who previously were not all that familiar with the particular items being sampled," said company spokesman Brian Frey, who declined to reveal the specific impact on sales.
The program featured two weekend events in January: one highlighting peaches, plums and nectarines; the other offering a wintertime taste of blood oranges and cara cara navels. A sampling of giant California strawberries is scheduled for the end of February.
Giant Eagle makes an effort to coordinate a produce department sampling event at least once a month, featuring items selected on the basis of seasonality and, often, a theme like grilling or entertaining, Frey said.
"We look to leverage cooking themes, such as holiday entertaining, grilling season and fall harvest, to identify items that our customers would be most interested in learning about or sampling," said Frey. "In addition, we look to sample both new items and existing items that customers are interested in, but may by hesitant to purchase without some prior opportunity to experience."
The sampling events are geared toward encouraging customers to try something new, but they also attempt to provide interested customers with the tools they need to use the item in the future. "Our sampling events are part product sampling and tasting, and part informal education," said Frey. "[They] include information on the topics of item selection, handling, storage, preparation, meal and recipe suggestions, and, when appropriate, tips for entertaining with the particular food item being sampled."
Despite the success of programs like Giant Eagle's, regular produce sampling is less common in supermarkets than at farmers' markets, said Amy Philpott, vice president of marketing and industry relations, United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Washington. Philpott noted, however, that the growth of the specialty produce segment had led many retailers to host sampling events when introducing new or exotic fruits and vegetables. "The benefits are clear -- it's a logistical issue," she said.
Labor challenges discourage retailers from conducting in-store demonstrations in produce departments, an industry consultant noted.
"There's a lot less labor at the store level today than there once was, and there are very few young full- or part-time employees trained in produce," said Ron Pelger, president of RonProCon, a Reno, Nev.-based produce consulting firm.
A former produce executive, Pelger described himself as a firm believer in samplings and demos, but said regular, chain-sponsored programs can thrive only with a top-down commitment from management. Strapped for store-level help and pressured to focus on their departments' gross profit, many produce managers find "there's rarely sufficient labor at store level to oversee these types of programs."
Giant Eagle, however, views sampling as an important strategy; in addition to its "Taste the Difference" events, the company offers hundreds of other sampling demonstrations in other store departments throughout the chain each year.
"Sampling plays a vital role in influencing trial customer purchases of new and seasonal items, as well as spontaneous purchases of existing items," said Frey. "However, the value of sampling goes beyond the taste experience, and provides an inviting setting for our associates to interact and educate our customers on a variety of important topics, such as product selection, handling, storage, preparation and availability."
"Taste the Difference," along with the item-specific produce seasonality, serving suggestions, selection and storage tips on the company's Web site, are established programs, Frey noted. Yet he added that the company continues to expand its sampling programs to make them more convenient and informative for customers.
Commodities groups can often help facilitate sampling events for interested retailers, Pelger noted. "You have to be partners in this business today," he said, pointing out that growers and commodity groups are frequently eager to build a buzz around unfamiliar varieties of fruit, or simply build sales by reminding customers about old favorites.
For example, Philpott cited a sampling program facilitated by the California Table Grape Commission. "We estimated, based on sales information from individual stores, that sales [of the featured grapes] would double during a week when sampling took place," Philpott noted.