Natural Foods Merchandiser

Product Sampling: Because People Eat With Their Eyes First

Try it, you'll like it. This is the mantra behind product sampling, the time-honored method of getting new or undersold products off the shelves and into the mouths—and shopping carts—of consumers.

And these days it's not just a paper cup filled halfway with juice. Manufacturers and retailers have gotten resourceful—and generous—when it comes to offering free samples. Customers can almost make a meal of in-store sampling and often walk out the door with more free stuff to try at home. Sampling not only generates interest in the product but in the store itself—and creates the kind of shopping experience that makes customers want to come back for more.

The point, of course, is to attract attention. "The goal of in-store sampling is to set the stage for the 'Eureka' experience," says Sylvia Tawse, president of the Boulder, Colo.-based Fresh Ideas Group and former demo coordinator for Alfalfa's Market. "People eat with their eyes first, and you need to use every opportunity to appeal to the senses, including visual displays, so shoppers want to approach and try what you have to offer."

In-store giveaways appeal on many levels to shoppers—the hunger and the "it's free" factors being primary—and work well even with products with which the consumer is unfamiliar.

"We feel that trial of product is our greatest weapon," says Steve Demos, owner of White Wave, based in Boulder, Colo., whose company has used sampling to push its soy products for the 25 years the company has been in existence. Now White Wave does as many as 20,000 demo events a year.

"We built the business with sampling. It's a no-risk situation for consumers. It has been critically important with soy products where many have the expectation that 'Gee, I'm not going to like this,'" he says. "It was paramount to overcome that, and there's no better way than giving the product away for free. We needed to get the product into people's mouths."

Initially, White Wave did in-store cooking demos with tofu. Now many companies, White Wave included, recognize that—when practical—consumers may prefer to take a sample home and test it out privately, away from distractions and with no one nearby asking for feedback.

With Silk, White Wave's soy milk line, the philosophy is to dispense free samples at the store's exit doors. Soy milk is provided in mini containers reminiscent of school cafeteria milk cartons, and yogurt is given out in the same sealed container in which it's seen in the refrigerated case.

Education is key, particularly with healthy products, which may cost a bit more than what the consumer is used to paying. The all-natural, hormone-free DuBreton pork products are a case in point. "Sampling provides an opportunity for the consumer to [see] firsthand how our pork is different from conventional products, about how it is more healthful," says Norm Boudreau, national sales director for the Saint-Bernard, Quebec-based company, who has spent 45 years in the meat business. "Customers are starved for information. We tell them the story of our company, provide nutritional information and tips on how to best prepare the product, and do in-store cooking demos."

Sampling not only educates the buying public but the in-store personnel as well, the ones who either push the product—or not.

When the founders of Trinity Springs started investigating how to introduce their water to the marketplace, they were faced with a critical obstacle: the glut of waters already on store shelves. Because Trinity is bottled directly from the source without any chemical processing or filtration, it is water in a category unto itself: a dietary supplement.

"We have such a unique product. There's no regulating category for undisinfected water, but our water is pure," says Mark Johnson, company president. "To process it unnecessarily would be to denature it, and we refused to compromise our product. "We knew we had to go into stores and make a connection in a very personal and authentic way."

They decided the best way to connect was for the company executives, those with the most intimate knowledge and passion for the water, to do the sampling. The plan was to visit specialty natural foods stores—not to put product in the water aisle at larger chains—and set up a table with visuals, samples and brochures. Then to sit, talk and listen. They set out to reach as many people as they could about the nuances of their product—where the water is from, its nutrient content, how it's handled, treated and bottled—and find out from retailers how best they could promote their own product.

And that took time. What may have started as one day in a store, grew to two or three. "We'd stay however long it took to get the job done," says Johnson. "We established a beachhead by talking to every single employee in each store we went to, from stock boy to store director. We'd go into the bowels of the store, talk, hand out water; [we] appreciated and respected everyone we came in contact with.

"With consumers, we'd do the same thing—be there, put water out for them, smile and hope for a dialogue. We'd answer any questions they had, and if we didn't have the answer, promise to get back to them."

By going out into the trenches, they were able to keep refining their sampling technique in response to what they saw and learned in the field, according to Stacy Kelly, Trinity's director of marketing and brand development.

One thing they realized early on was that a paper cup filled with Trinity was not enough, and instead handed out bottles of water, generating good will and providing ample quantity for the whole family to test the product.

Since its launch in 1998, Trinity's 1.5-liter bottles have become the top- selling water in natural foods markets. The company's thorough and passionate approach to sampling is likely the reason behind the impressive sales growth. The secret for successful sampling—and ultimately burgeoning sales—is simple. Says Johnson, "It is all about developing the same respectful relationship with humans that we have with the source of our water."

Barbara Hey is a senior editor at Delicious Living!

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 11/p. 12, 17

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