Price Chopper intercepts shoppers the old-fashioned way: It feeds them.
The 104-store retailer, based in Schenectady, N.Y., conducts some 500 sampling events per week. Not only is the company dedicated to such frequency, it's departed in other ways from most operators. Price Chopper has been conducting its own in-house program since the mid-1980s, and hasn't looked back since. "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 up close before they think to purchase it."
In-store sampling programs have long been popular methods of boosting volume of certain goods, introducing new products, or cross promoting items. Yet, the execution has always presented a challenge. When staging these types of promotions, most supermarket retailers turn to third-party agencies to handle the mountain of details, including providing trained labor and partnering with manufacturers.
Russ Bowman, president of Greenwich, Conn.-based Westfield Marketing, remembered how well this arrangement worked during his years at General Foods. This successful formula continues today.
"Manufacturers and retailers like to have one-stop shopping, and let one company handle the whole promotion. A national third party has the experience and the expertise throughout the country. They hire local demo agencies to work in the stores," said Bowman, author of the new book, "All About Sampling and Demonstrations," published by the Promotion Marketing Association, New York (www.pmalink.org).
However, despite this record of success over the years, some grocers prefer to do it themselves with an in-house program. Price Chopper is one of those companies.
"When that product is being sampled by a live person who also knows about the product and can answer questions, it helps the customer to make a more informed decision," Golub told SN. "Customers appreciate that more than ever today."
For its in-store events, the retailer relies on 300 part-time Price Chopper associates called Super Samplers whose only job is sampling. Susan Constantine manages this crew, as well as negotiates promotions with manufacturers.
"Our Super Samplers love what they do," Golub continued, adding that turnover through the years has been minor. "They love the customer contact, and they sample consistently in the same stores."
With its commitment to frequent sampling, it's no surprise that Price Chopper has been approached by third-party firms to take over the program. Yet everything is going so well, according to Golub, that there's no reason to change. She listed several advantages of in-house sampling strategies:
The samplers know the management and customers very well.
"One of the many reasons why we like operating a program in-house is that these folks are a part of our customer service team," said Golub. "They know the store, they know the management of the store and, ultimately, they get to know the customers. People recognize them and trust that they have the right information about the products and that they prepare them correctly if they involve cooking."
The promotions with manufacturers are conducted without a middle man.
"The relationships are direct," she stressed. "We are working directly with manufacturers, and therefore can tailor the samplings to meet their needs more specifically than if we had a third party negotiating in the middle."
The promotions are easy to plan.
"The manufacturer will introduce a new item, get it accepted in the merchandising department, and then walk across the hall and say, 'I've got a new item that's going to be in the system in two months, and I'd like to sample it. I'd like to get set up in the top 50 stores for two days of sampling.' Things move smoothly from there," she said.
Products to be sampled are shipped directly to the store, and not to a third party first. "We have a system whereby one of the management team in the store is the key person. All deliveries of signage and product go into a distinct area that's reserved for Super Samples," said Golub. "The samplers know exactly where to look, and find what they are going to need. The communication lines are very well established. That's one of the reasons our program runs as smoothly as it does."
One of the issues with in-house sampling that is often raised deals with liability -- especially if the sampling event involves cooking in the store. There is a danger to employees and even shoppers when hot samplings are staged.
Nevertheless, Price Chopper is confident in its safeguards.
"Not simply because we are self-insured," Golub pointed out, "but because we have taken all the necessary precautions in our operations as well as in our signage to make sure things are done right. That means we don't sample children who are not accompanied by an adult. Whenever there is a hot sample, there's a sign on the table as well as a Super Sampler who is handing it to them saying it is hot. Time and experience have proven that we've covered our bases very carefully and very thoughtfully."
Hot samples are in the regular rotation of in-store events that range from standard samplings scheduled around advertised specials to those associated with ethnic holidays. The retailer has opened about a dozen natural stores-within-a-store at a dozen locations. A sample fest at each opening featured natural and organic products. Dietitians were on hand to answer questions about wheat-free/gluten-free products, for instance, or what products can reduce high cholesterol.
The in-house sampling program at Price Chopper has evolved over the years, according to Golub. The changes involve the relationship with manufacturers and the kinds of products sampled.
"We are established enough and consistent enough that manufacturers approach us more [for promotions] than we reach out to approach them," she said. "For the most part, the manufacturers know the value of what they are getting when they invest in Super Samples and therefore there's much less solicitation on our part and much more direct contact from the manufacturing side."
Nowadays, Price Chopper is focusing on more private-label and prepared foods in its sampling promotions. It started doing floral sampling as well. Super Samplers are positioned near a display of fresh flowers that are on sale. They give customers information about the flowers, and show them what the savings are.
The newest program is called "Grab and Go, Jack." The goal is to spark sales of prepared foods, particularly around the dinner hour. Typical samples include pizza right out of the oven and barbeque chicken.
"The Super Sampler not only gives the customer a taste of what's available, but is stationed next to a display of empty pizza boxes or empty chicken wing containers that are all ready to go," said Golub. "The customer can grab the container, go to the prepared-foods department, place an order for those items, do whatever else they have to do in the way of shopping, and then dinner will be ready on their way out.
"The 'Grab and Go, Jack' program is the cutting edge for us right now. We're finding that customers are still striving for time to get a great dinner on the table for their families," said Golub.