Try before you buy: It's a vital part of the shopping experience for all consumers, whether they're in the market for a new car, on the hunt for a CD or shopping at their neighborhood natural foods store. Thanks to the aggressive sampling and demo program available at club stores such as Costco, consumers have come to expect their shopping experience to be filled with opportunities to test, taste and try a myriad of products before they plunk down their hard-earned cash.
"The purpose of a sampling program is to make a taste and emotional connection with the customer," says Vacaville, Calif., consultant Danny Wells. "If successful, the impulse to buy is immediate."
For the Boulder, Colo.-based natural foods chain Wild Oats, the results of an extensive sampling program have been lucrative. "With some of the products we've sampled, we've seen a sales increase of 200 percent for that product," says Sonja Tuitele, Wild Oats' director of corporate communications. "Sampling is very important for us because the customer may not be as familiar with the products we offer, which aren't mainstream brands. People are much more willing to switch over to buying these nonmainstream brands if they're able to taste beforehand."
Cheryl Hughes, owner of The Whole Wheatery in Lancaster, Calif., agrees. "Once it's in their mouth, it's in their cupboard," she says. "I say you should never be afraid to give something away for free because it'll come back to you tenfold."
Hughes says that a particularly successful addition to her store was a drink machine dispensing free samples. "That's been a big hit. We fill it every day with everything from soymilk to iced tea to lattes. The customers love it—they've come to expect it. When it's down, we get complaints! But they're always interested in seeing what we've got in there."
Both Tuitele and Hughes recommend sampling a lot of impulse items—chips, cookies and snacks—and strategically positioning them near the registers.
And it may seem obvious, but Wells says it's often overlooked: You should always have lots of the product stacked up next to your sampling area. "This will increase sales six- to seven-fold over the consumer having to find the product elsewhere in the store after sampling it," he says. "If the product is not immediately available next to the sample table, the impulse to buy begins to fade as the customer continues shopping."
Terese Hollander Esperas, program coordinator for the Sacramento Food Co-op in Sacramento and Elk Grove, Calif., says that the stores' wide-ranging sampling and demo program goes beyond simply putting out a product for customers to taste. "Something that we like to do is take something as simple as chard and prepare it with, say, extra virgin olive oil and garlic. It's transformed from something customers might pass by usually into something amazing. We're not just trying to sell product; we're trying to teach people to cook as well." The co-op also fills its store with products from local farmers who man their own sample tables.
According to The Natural Foods Merchandiser produce columnist Mark Mulcahy, the produce section is a good place to do heavy sampling. "If people are going to buy something fresh, they're more likely to buy if they can taste that freshness for themselves," he says. "A strong sampling program in the produce section can add a couple of dollars per basket per customer."
A steady sampling and demo program can make a store more vibrant. "Wild Oats is positioned as an experience, as a place for discovery," Tuitele says. "It shouldn't be seen as your usual grocery shopping experience, as a chore to cross off your list. By doing a lot of sampling, we're able to put a little more theater and enjoyment into the store."
Hughes finds that having an on-site demo coordinator is a major boon. "For some of the products that need a more in-depth explanation, it's great when the companies will send a representative who's educated about the product," she says. "Then the customer can go away from the store not only knowing that the product doesn't just have a good flavor, but it's good for them as well. The one-on-one experience is really important."
Hollander Esperas says, "The companies are more than happy to provide you with sample products if you ask. They're aware that sampling and demos are the best way to sell the product to the consumer."
Tyler Wilcox is a writer in Longmont, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 3/p. 82