DEMOING SAID TO LIVEN UP FRESH PRODUCTS

BENTONVILLE, Ark. -- Running a fresh-product demonstration program that is aggressive and well-planned can mean the difference between life and death for a new fresh product, according to Richard Donckers, president of Retail Strategies International here, a marketing consultancy to supermarkets and mass merchandisers.A vibrant demo program can also breathe new life into an existing item that is suffering,

BENTONVILLE, Ark. -- Running a fresh-product demonstration program that is aggressive and well-planned can mean the difference between life and death for a new fresh product, according to Richard Donckers, president of Retail Strategies International here, a marketing consultancy to supermarkets and mass merchandisers.

A vibrant demo program can also breathe new life into an existing item that is suffering, said Donckers in an interview with SN. It can even boost sales four- or 10-fold, if it is done correctly.

Departments such as the in-store bakery and the deli can send their sales skyrocketing just by getting a friendly and enthusiastic person to encourage customers to taste items, Donckers said -- and to "encourage" a trial is not the same as merely to offer a taste.

It is an important distinction, because the enthusiasm and outwardness of the person manning the demo station is extremely important.

Donckers' idea of a demo is anything but passive. Indeed, if the alternative is to passively sample the product, he wouldn't bother. "It's a waste of time and product."

An aggressive demo starts with how the program looks. "Make sure the customer notices the demo station and the person at it. Dress the demo person in a way that's classy, with a chef's hat or beret or a vest and black bowtie. Remember you're romancing the customer."

He suggested drawing demo people from culinary colleges, or hiring waiters or waitresses to do the work, "people who interact well with other people and who know about food."

To back up an exciting demo program, Donckers suggested a money-back guarantee; if the product is high quality, customers will come back not for a refund but for more product.

Supermarket retailers sometimes balk at offering such a guarantee, thinking people will take unfair advantage of it, Donckers said. But a guarantee is not a potential problem if the retailer is assured of the quality of the product on trial.

Donckers said he knows of one mass merchandiser so sure of its in-store bakery products at its supercenters that it offers a double-your-money-back guarantee, if you're not satisfied. It is a powerful message of confidence. "A demo program tells customers you're proud of your product."

A real commitment to a demo program means giving it enough time to have an effect. "Figure on having the demo station staffed from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m." for optimum effect.

The cost of a demo program should also be considered a measure of commitment, and not a hindrance, Donckers said. "In the pricing," he suggested, "you set the margin so it covers the cost of the demo as well as the shrink, or you build the program with the idea you're going to have a hefty payroll for a while."

In either case, an aggressively executed demonstration is worth the investment for the amount of sales it spurs, he said. Retailers can also pursue support from manufacturers, who are often willing to underwrite the cost of the demos by paying the salary of the demo person.

"I know of manufacturers who reimburse, say, $8 an hour and the cost of the product to be sampled. In that case, your demo station could be a profit center," he pointed out.