Membership clubs are state of the art when it comes to in-store product sampling.
In one, it's difficult to move more than an aisle or two without encountering a sampling station set up on an end. This works especially well for membership, since the format requires shoppers to commit to a large supply of product. Sampling gives shoppers a way to be sure they like what they are contemplating purchasing, since in many instances it will be around for quite a while.
Sampling also pumps a sense of theater into the membership shopping atmosphere, along with sponsoring the idea of the store as a treasure-hunting venue: a place where shoppers have reason to expect they may encounter the unexpected every now and then.
On top of that, people simply like the idea of getting free stuff and may be motivated to return to see what's being given away.
Supermarkets are no strangers to sampling either, and have used the method prior to the time membership clubs were inaugurated. But supermarket sampling is a little different. At many supermarkets, sampling isn't a routine, but is used for a special purpose, such as to introduce a new product or to herald the opening of a new, reset or remodeled store. Generally, such sampling efforts are sponsored in whole or in part by manufacturers and are executed by vendor or third-party representatives. Similar sharing of sampling cost occurs at other channels of trade, too, of course.
Some supermarket operators, though, have moved away from that practice and are stepping up with their own funds to underwrite, at least in part, the frequency of sampling and even the sampling of store brands. You'll see more about this in the news feature in this week's Retail Marketing section on Page 36.
The enhanced-sampling approach makes eminently good sense for supermarkets, and for most of the reasons it makes sense for membership. In addition, sampling of store brands fosters trial of product that ends up being a store's emissary to shoppers' homes and dinner tables.
Sampling also affords a different means to compete with alternate formats by offering a non-price-oriented way to burnish the image of the store. As we noted last week in this space, that's the key to competing with low-cost providers.
Let's move now to a related topic, the point at which the price spread between two operators becomes so great that shoppers abandon one format for another. This topic was the subject of the January issue of "Competitive Edge," the newsletter issued by Willard Bishop Consulting.
According to that firm's research, limited-assortment stores offer price points about 30% below those of traditional supermarkets, while supercenters are 13% to 18% below. But the point at which shoppers become motivated to change shopping venues varies. One upscale supermarket was able to charge a premium of about 10%, and shoppers tolerate that because of service, variety and so on. Another traditional store started to lose customers at a 5% spread because it didn't offer non-price superiority. No doubt sampling can be put into this non-price approach, too.