Retailers have always merchandised their premium store brands alongside well-known and popular national brands. Private label provides better margins, helps create a unique shopping experience and prevents erosion to alternative trade classes.
Building on this track record, supermarkets are now sampling their store brands more than ever before, according to retailers and in-store marketing experts. This popular promotion stimulates store traffic and adds excitement to the supermarket setting. "Demonstrations, sampling and events have nearly doubled in some markets. It makes sense to be known for something special to attract the target customer," said Kit Moss, president of Chicago-based Kit Moss Productions, which runs such programs for Jewel and many other retailers.
One chain that understands the value of sampling is Price Chopper, Schenectady, N.Y. The retailer stages some 500 sampling events per week in its 104 supermarkets in six Northeastern states. The retailer relies on a corps of 300 demonstrators who are on staff.
"Sampling products creates a better opportunity for a sale," explained Mona Golub, manager of consumer services. "Sampling in the store is theater. It is entertainment. I think customers are interested to see a product, smell a product and taste a product before they decide to purchase it."
Last year, Price Chopper relied on sampling as the key part of its marketing strategy for the launch of a premium private-label frozens line called Central Market Classics "Solutions."
The line consists of 44 different appetizers, entrees, side dishes and desserts. It is being positioned as a complete meal that is an alternative to time-consuming meals made from scratch.
At Penn Traffic Co., Syracuse, N.Y., "sampling is an important part of our marketing of store brands because it enables the customers to experience the quality," said Joe Ramirez, spokesman. "Without the sampling, they might be aware of the brands, but they might be uncertain as to how good they are. With a sampling, they're challenged to compare them against the national brands."
The retailer operates 107 supermarkets in Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont and New Hampshire under the Bi-Lo Foods, Quality Markets, Riverside Markets and P&C Foods banners. Its private-label brands include Food Club, Top Crest, Top Care and Pet Club.
Penn Traffic has stepped up its sampling of store brands in the last few years. While specific sales lift is not available, Ramirez said anecdotal evidence indicates that sampling has certainly boosted sales of private label.
The same has been true at Giant Eagle, which has also increased the sampling of its private-label lines in its 140 corporate and 83 independently owned and operated stores in western Pennsylvania, Ohio, north-central West Virginia and Maryland.
"You're going to find different types of lift associated with different types of products that you sample," explained Rob Borella, spokesman for the Pittsburgh-based chain. "For example, you may have a different type of sales lift for a new product vs. an existing product that maybe has a new formulation, or you may find differences between perishable products in terms of sales lift vs. the packaged items. We're in the process of really defining the types of sales lift that we expect to see internally, with our various lines of business, and externally, with manufacturers."
Private-label sampling is part of an employee education program at Giant Eagle. For example, in preparation for Valentine's Day, the retailer is focusing on its Aunt Martha's cheesecake and chocolate-covered cherries. Employees learn about the products before the samplings for Valentine's Day are held.
"At a very high level, what we're trying to do is integrate the food education of employees," said Borella. "We're getting them excited and passionate about it with customer sampling programs and then translating that into sales lift."
On any given day of the week, but especially Thursday to Sunday, most Giant Eagle stores stage product sampling and demos. Richard Cagley, director of corporate brands, called sampling "a very critical component" of the corporate-brand program. That is especially true for new or unique products.
"We tend to focus on demos that bring some point of difference to the consumer or sample a product that's being used in a unique way as opposed to more of a commodity," he said. "Everybody knows what water tastes like. Everybody knows what Product X tastes like. We really try to do things where taste may not be understood or, in the realm of corporate brands, may not be believable. Demos and sampling can be a very powerful tool."
Cagley used the example of Laurenti Mediterranean Specialty Foods, a gourmet line that the chain launched in October 2004. The line consists of 30 products, but plans call for expanding the assortment to more than 50. Among the products: pastas, canned tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, first cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, pasta sauces, and glass-packed mushrooms, olives and capers.
"We felt it was very important for people to try the pasta and the pasta sauce because the quality is best in category," said Cagley. "We crafted a very impactful in-store demo of the new products. The challenging piece was making sure that the pasta was cooked 'al dente.' And not just for one plate, but for an eight-hour sampling. What we ended up having to do was actually hiring two demo people so that one person could be making sure the pasta was exactly the way we wanted it to be to replicate the experience at home, while the other person was interacting with the customer."
Having a consumer try the product in the store is obviously a key benefit for sampling store brands, according to Ramirez of Penn Traffic. It can spur sales of that specific product. In the larger sense, however, such samplings help the overall store because consumers get to know about the wider assortment of private label and how they compare with national brands.
"Once you get the customers interested in the store brands and they become fans, then you have a loyal customer," he said. "They can't get those store brands elsewhere. That kind of loyalty really benefits the whole store."
Retailers often do samplings that combine a private-label item with a national brand. For example, during Super Bowl weekend, Penn Traffic will be sampling Old El Paso salsa with the retailer's Food Club tortilla chips.
"The products work together, and it benefits both of us," said Ramirez.
Giant Eagle also does similar tie-ins between its private-label and national or regional brands. But Cagley also welcomes in-store samplings coordinated with its own suppliers -- that is, with companies that make private-label goods for the chain.
"I think the real progressive suppliers understand the power of sampling," he said. "If they would understand that it could even drive business for them and for us, they would be willing to invest with us so we don't take the full financial burden. In other words, partner with us to do more events.
"Sometimes, people are reluctant to do things that cost a little bit of money, but we've found that if we pick the right products, in-store demonstrations can be very successful for the long-term success of a product."