News & Solutions IDDA Special Report
Deli executives who subscribe to the maxim "publicize or perish" are using sampling more than ever to generate the best publicity of all: word of mouth.
Deli executives interviewed by SN rated sampling as the No. 1 way to boost immediate sales of a deli product or program, especially a new one.
But if they've got tenure in mind for that product, just letting the customer take a bite won't cut it. Long-term success hinges on expert in-store execution of the sampling program, backed up by real product knowledge.
Retailers said they handle the physical sampling process differently. Most use the in-store personnel to conduct the sampling within the deli department. Some sample on the sales floor in addition to on the deli counter.
But the consensus was strong that sampling is almost always good for sales.
"It does have a tremendous impact on sales," said Donna Howell, deli manager at Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio. "When we put something out on the counter for customers to try, the product sells out."
"In the deli department in particular, sampling is very important," said Joanne Gage, vice president of consumer services at Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y. Richard Draeger, vice president of Draeger's, Menlo Park, Calif., said, "When it comes to developing a new item, when it has to stand on its own, sampling is the difference between success and failure. Our products sell by word of mouth. The more sampling we do, the better the broadcast is about our items."
For Draeger, whose store specializes in fresh and gourmet foods and is a favorite among "foodies" in the San Francisco Bay area, sampling is more than just a gimmick.
At its most visceral level, sampling makes a deep sensory connection with customers, which is important for a department that is marketing higher-ring items, often without the benefit of branded equity and the quality assurances that implies.
"We can describe a product, but that doesn't convey what the customer's palate tells them," said Draeger. "Food speaks for itself. We cannot describe in words the flavor or experience of our foods. It is an easy sell to let the food sell itself. When we sample an item, we know what it does for us personally.
"Sampling provides interest to what could be a mundane shopping experience," he said. "Customers appreciate sampling. They love to have you sharing products with them, even if they decide not to buy it."
Such an attitude toward sampling is not limited to the Bay area, however. "Sampling is part of the sizzle," said David Vaughn, director of deli at Seessel's Supermarkets, Memphis, Tenn. "Without it, we might lose some mystique."
At Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C., sampling also goes beyond the mystical to address more practical concerns. First of all, it draws shoppers in.
"Sampling gets customers into the deli," said Howell.
And once they're in, shoppers use sampling to point them toward products. "We believe that product sampling simply helps customers identify which items are their favorites," said Ruth Kinzey, director of communications. "It helps customers identify which items they want to buy and ensures that the customer is pleased with the purchase."
"Products are often in the case on display, and cannot be handled and examined by the customers," added Price Chopper's Gage.
"Sampling is most effective with new products," she added. "It gives them a real shot in the arm."
Draeger agreed, and said he makes sampling part of the new product routine. "Once an item is sampled for two weeks, it should grow in popularity and sales," he said. Beyond that sampling window, the operator gives new items another four weeks of trial, allowing them a total of six weeks to prove they can pull their own weight before making the decision to replace them.
Conversely, said some retailers, too much sampling of items, particularly ones that are no longer new, can become counterproductive.
"We walk a fine line with sampling between assisting in selling and increasing sales, and just feeding people," said Vaughn of Seessel's. "With well-established items, sampling just does not generate more business."
The chain does, however, employ sampling to light a fire under items that are seasonal and available for only a limited time.
For instance, the operator produces a home-grown tomato-based salsa at its commissary. Vaughn said sampling this item successfully reintroduces customers to the item and keeps sales brisk during the six short weeks it is available.
For new items, sampling is usually part of a larger promotional strategy that should also rely on backup from point-of-purchase, display and advertising, said Vaughn.
"Sampling alone doesn't do it," he said. "You have to have display, point-of-purchase and ads to back it up."
At Seessel's, associates sample new foods for eight weeks under a procedure that includes a reporting mechanism for collecting comments from both the associates and the customers. Following that time, the item is evaluated for future continuation in the deli menu.
Even aggressive sampling does not gaurantee greater awareness for an item, however. Seessel's, for example, used sampling to help launch a new program called Fresh & Quick, centered around prepared main courses and side dish items produced at its commissary and merchandised in 12-foot to 20-foot refrigerated sections.
The chain conducted sampling every day, with associates out on the selling floor. It was a significant departure from Seessel's earlier regimen, which relied primarily on self-serve sampling off the deli counter.
The results have been less than spectacular. "At the end of six months of this effort, 50% of our customers had not heard of Fresh & Quick or had sampled it," Vaughn reported.
Retailers agreed that while an item is being sampled, there is typically -- and not surprisingly -- a sales spike.
The real challenge for any program is to create repeat sales after the demo person climbs back behind the counter -- and to prevent the volume overall from returning to previous levels or even dipping below levels prevailing before the sampling promotion was put into place.
"The degree of repeat sales really depends upon the product," said Howell of Dorothy Lane. "We almost always experience a sales increase over the long run, after a product is sampled."
This is where the underlying strength of a sampling program comes into play -- the product knowledge and skill in program execution, possessed and demonstrated by the in-store staff.
"The more you sample an item, the better off you are," said Howell. "But no matter how big the promotion, you have to have a lot of product knowledge to back up the sampling."
With this in mind, Draeger's makes sure each associate has personal experience with the products being sampled -- and the best way to do that is to have them try it themselves before they let a consumer get near it.
"New products are first sampled by all the department personnel so that they have a good sense of the product. They are told what the ingredients are, and the procedure of the product's production is explained," said Draeger. "Once the product has sold the staff, it is much easier for the staff to sell our customers on it. You could not have any better salesmanship than a product that a staff member believes in."
And that first-hand knowledge has got to be relayed to the shoppers on the spot.
"It's all in communication between the staff and the customer," said Howell of Dorothy Lane. "Success depends upon the people selling the products and using suggestive selling with every order."
"A contact with an associate is always better than just a self-serve," agreed Vaughn of Seessel's.
Making it a personal experience may also mean giving up control of the program to the store level, however.
At Seessel's, sampling is regulated by the corporate office, with suggestions for in-store tie-ins into currently running ads or new-product introductions.
Still, all service associates at Seessel's are given free license to sample any item requested by a customer or to use sampling as part of their suggestive selling, according to Vaughn.
"The biggest continuous challenge we have is to get our associates free and willing to offer samples," said Vaughn. "If I could wave a wand and get my wish, it would be that each of our associates aggressively sample our products.
"We certainly want to encourage our associates to be more aggressive. We train them to use sampling with suggestive selling," he continued. "We have some associates that tie in a meat sale with a suggestive selling of a salad, for example."
Price Chopper has had Super Samples -- a regular department with employees dedicated to sampling -- up and running for 10 years. All staffed in-store sampling is run through that in-house department; no outside sampling staff is allowed into Price Chopper units, said Gage.
For self-serve sampling in the deli case, meanwhile, Price Chopper relies on deli department associates. Customer requests can dictate the choice of what products get sampled for self-service. In addition, deli departments often select from the items currently on ad or feature, or from the roster of new items.
At Dorothy Lane, in-store personnel sample from the display case on customer request, and additionally, on top of the case over the weekends.
Dorothy Lane's in-store staff handles most of the sampling activities. Outsiders do get involved, however, especially when a special guest is in town such as a product's originator. That guest typically would be on the spot to talk to the customers about the product as they sample it.
"They just have a deeper product knowledge than our staff could possibly have," said Howell.
The Dorothy Lane sampling calendar is worked up one month in advance. Occasionally there may be a special write-up in the retailer's newsletter to encourage sampling. In June, for example, Boar's Head meats were featured in the newsletter. In the store, Boar's Head product was sampled every Saturday to dovetail the newsletter article.
"We look for opportunities all the time when setting our sampling calendar," Howell said. "We take a look at what the store's monthly promotion might be or what the ad themes are and try to select products that tag along."
Harris Teeter encourages each unit to determine which items are most appropriate for sampling, depending on their location, according to Kinzey.
"This approach is consistent with our decentralized organization, where store personnel have the opportunity to review what makes the most sense for the location," Kinzey said. "This plays a major role in determining which products are selected for sampling and with what frequency tastings are conducted."
Draeger's has an ongoing sampling schedule of new items, seven days a week on the service deli counter and within the operator's self-service specialty cheese case.
"Sampling is critical to selling specialty cheese," Draeger remarked. "Unless the customer can taste the product, it would not sell on its own."
Within the service deli, Draeger's samples products on the weekend on the sales floor, in front of the case. Products are chosen from Draeger's regular deli case menu. Seasonality dictates the rotation.
"We try to offer things more interesting for the season," said Draeger. "Now we are sampling salad items and barbecue items such as our rotisserie selections. In the colder seasons we sample our heavier products like stews and soups."
The sales floor sampling is handled by deli personnel suited to the task.
"We try to select personalities who are real 'people' people, who like communicating with customers," Draeger said. "Our staff really likes doing this because it gives them a break in the daily routine."
Draeger's makes samples available in the deli case seven days a week. "Additionally, if a customer doesn't know a product, we will always offer a sample if they need a better understanding of the product," he said.
Weekend sampling becomes an in-store event of major proportion, Draeger added.
But any such event makes demands on labor and on product. Retailers said that besides making allowances for in-store staff being diverted from the department sales schedule, they've got to make sure to order the right amount of the product for the sampling and for the resulting sales.