When asked to talk about in-store sampling of products, Sheryl Kirsch, director of advertising for the 55-store Woodbridge, N.J.-based Foodtown Supermarkets chain, recalled the time that ostrich meat was tested.
"We cooked it [ostrich meat] in the store and showed customers how good it tastes," Kirsch said. "It's [in-store sampling is] great for product that doesn't sound so appetizing.
"At Foodtown, we do sampling constantly," Kirsch added. "We do it every week. It adds an excitement to the store. It makes shopping more fun."
But more than that, several supermarket retailers and experts said in-store sampling has come a long way from the days when a store operator would hire a high school kid to hand out cheese on a toothpick.
Nowadays, in-store sampling has been developed into a marketing science that most supermarket operators believe has proven to be an extremely effective way of moving product, especially new product.
"It really has developed into a science," said Cynthia Codeghini, sampling sales coordinator for the Atlantic region at A&P, Montvale, N.J. "The manufacturers take data gathered from the store at POS. They track buying habits, hire outside firms to analyze it and pinpoint where sales are coming from and areas that need help."
Codeghini coordinates sampling programs at 300 stores in the chain, including A&P, Waldbaum's and Superfresh stores.
Not only has in-store sampling become a science, most agree it has become a highly effective science.
"Sampling is the most cost-effective way to do business," Codeghini said. "Buying is an emotional thing. If you get them to sample the product, to see it, taste it, smell it, then they are more apt to buy it."
"There is an old adage in our business that says the best place to advertise is as close to the product as possible," Gasparro said.
Tim Hawkes, president of Trade Zone, Westport, Conn., a retail marketing consulting group, echoes Gasparro's testimonial.
"In-store is certainly the best place to do sampling, because it is near where the product is sold," Hawkes said. He added that "wet samples," or ready-to-eat, have proven most effective.
"The conversion rate of customers actually buying those [wet] products is high. It's less effective and more costly when you hand out a sample product to take home."
A&P officials said they don't go it alone, though, when it comes to sampling. A&P, like most large retailers, works hand in hand with marketing firms that help them coordinate the sampling programs with the manufacturers. A&P works with REH Marketing, a Long Island, N.Y.-based firm that works closely with the chain's category managers as well as with product manufacturers.
In most cases, the manufacturers provide not only the product, but also the personnel to do the sampling programs.
Codeghini said another big change these days is that the people who conduct the sampling programs are a lot more educated.
"It's all advanced marketing techniques now," Codeghini said. "These people doing the sampling are salespeople. They are more educated, market savvy, persuasive."
Steven Jenkins, partner, of Fairway Markets, New York, which operates two stores in Manhattan and one in Plainview, on Long Island, said that at one time supermarket operators had to pursue manufacturers to get them to sample in their stores.
"Now, the manufacturers know it is the way to move product. They pursue us. They want a high profile in our stores. The whole process has become an institution.
"In the past, you would go out and hire a high school kid to do it; now it's a full-blown business. It's all positive as far as I am concerned. It puts a good smell in the store. The shoppers get excited. It's good for the shoppers and it's good for us, because it sells more product.
"It's always very successful," added Jenkins. "It increases traffic, results in immediate sales. It's a very positive thing."
Gasparro agreed with Jenkins on who's in the driver's seat these days when it comes to in-store sampling.
"I think it has become much more supermarket-driven rather than manufacturer-driven," Gasparro said. "The practice really lends itself to fresh foods. It's big there. It's big in bakery.
"We have a real structured [sampling] program right now. It's great, because the customers actually spend more time in the store when we're sampling," Gasparro said. "We have created an environment where the customer actually enjoys their shopping experience."
Gasparro said that product manufacturers have told him that the sampling program creates a great environment or "theater" in the store.
"Beyond fresh foods, it [sampling] is also good for center store. Procter & Gamble has done quite well with cleaning products," he said.
"Procter & Gamble will tell you that in some instances sales have increased nearly 300% when customers can actually sample," Gasparro added.
Moreover, Gasparro said that he has seen statistics indicating that 78% of the people who get a chance to sample a product claim they would buy it if they needed it.
"The program works well for both sides, the retailer and the manufacturer," Gasparro added. "People have very little brand loyalty anymore."
Robert Delf, co-owner of Bob's Big M Market, Wolcott, N.Y., a single-store operator, also sees the benefits of sampling.
"Recently we had a Mardi Gras cake -- it was multicolored, but it had no frosting. I purchased it from a distributor [Deli/Boy]. We sampled it, and the customers really went for it. After the customers tasted it, a lot of them ended up buying it."
Delf said he finds sampling particularly effective for new products in deli and produce. "If the consumer picks up something they wouldn't ordinarily buy, it's obviously good for the store," Delf said.
Kirsch agreed with Delf's line of reasoning. "The best is, when there is a new product out there, to have customers come in and sample, put a coupon on it, have the product right there, especially new and improved products. It really helps," she said.
Moreover, Kirsch pointed to another form of promotion that in-store sampling really helps with: cross-marketing.
"It's a great tool for cross-marketing products, like Breakstone Sour Cream with Lay's Potato Chips, or Doritos with salsa," she said. "Recently we did a cross-marketing campaign with soy hot dogs and mustard that really went over big."
Jenkins said that when it comes to agreeing to partner with a manufacturer to do sampling, he looks to meet the following five criteria: It needs to be a product he is proud of; the product's manufacturer must supply the demonstrator; the manufacturer must supply the product to be sampled; it has to be a product he has in stock; and the sampling must be conducted twice a week for one month.
Cross-marketing isn't the only area that gets a shot in the arm from sampling. Codeghini said the sampling program has also shown great success when it comes to ethnic foods, too.
Codeghini said the manufacturers of ethnic foods seem to be flush with money right now when it comes to financing sampling programs. "It [sampling] is real big right now for Hispanic foods," she said.
Last month, the 19-store Stevens Point, Wis.-based Copps supermarkets ran a hugely successful in-store demonstration focusing on soy foods and their health benefits. It was tied in with National Heart Month.
About a dozen products, including soy butter, soy crackers, soy puddings made with aseptically packed tofu, and a myriad of soy beverages were sampled. The demonstration was called Soy Sensations.
"Overall, we were very excited," said Russell Haines, natural foods merchandiser for Copps. "It was successful, profitable and useful, and we hope to expand it even more.
Copps has an extensive demonstration program, staffed by its employees and utilizing specially designed wheeled demo carts and counters. "Every day of the week you can walk down the aisle and get pizza, or soups, or somebody's doing a frozen dinner," Haines said.
When it comes to in-store sampling, though, perhaps no success story is more poignant then that of Steve Demos, owner of the Boulder, Co.-based food company called White Wave, whose product line is based on soybeans.
The flagship product of White Wave is a soy milk called Silk. Silk is now available in more than 80% of the nation's supermarkets, and annual sales are on track to exceed $100 million by the end of this year.
However, at one time Demos' company was reportedly on the brink of bankruptcy. Demos credits in-store sampling of his soy-based products with bringing White Wave back from the brink.