Melvin Scales, consumer promotion manager at Lifesavers Co., Winston-Salem, N.C., is a strong believer in product sampling."Sampling is probably the biggest opportunity for gaining trial," he says.In planning a sampling program, it's important to concentrate on the product's point of difference, he says. If it is adequately expressed during the sampling program, that will be reflected in consumer

Melvin Scales, consumer promotion manager at Lifesavers Co., Winston-Salem, N.C., is a strong believer in product sampling.

"Sampling is probably the biggest opportunity for gaining trial," he says.

In planning a sampling program, it's important to concentrate on the product's point of difference, he says. If it is adequately expressed during the sampling program, that will be reflected in consumer conversion rates.

Lifesavers' new Stick-Free brand of chewing gum stands alone in the market, according to Scales, because it is sugarless and nonstick -- attributes competitors' products cannot lay claim to.

Lifesavers Co., an operating unit of Nabisco, handed out about 6.2 million samples of the product in stores last year, targeting areas where its competitors were dominant in what he calls "highly developed category markets."

Within those areas, neighborhoods were also chosen for desirable demographic characteristics, thus proving that with the myriad of targeting technologies in their hands, brand marketers have the ability to ensure that their sampling efforts reach the ideal consumers. In other words, sampling in the retail environment does not have to be broad-scale anymore.

"Where we know we are weakest and where we know our competitor is the strongest, we can basically go in and say, 'You've got a choice here,' " he explains. "Honestly, it is the best thing to use if you are introducing a new product in any highly competitive category."

The effectiveness of sampling and demonstrations cannot be denied: 95% of shoppers who are given a sample will try the product, according to industry estimates. Conversion rates hover around 10% when a sample alone is delivered; that jumps to about 15% when a coupon accompanies the sample.

Nor can its increased usage by consumer goods companies be disputed: 92% of the companies surveyed by Donnelley Marketing in 1993 (the latest figures available) said they had used sampling. The year before, only 86% of those contacted said they had used sampling. Furthermore, 43% of brand marketers viewed product sampling as highly important, compared with just 15% the year before.

"They like it because consumers do," says Caroline Cotten Nakken, a principal of MassConnections, Anaheim, Calif. She cites consumer research which showed that many shoppers will actually seek out demos.

By all accounts, handing out product samples to consumers in the store is a sure way to gain trial and usage, build in-store traffic and create a positive brand image with consumers. It's become a tool of choice for brand marketers, who last year drove in-store sampling to the $350 million to $400 million level, according to figures generally recognized by the industry.

"Ready-to-eat cereal is probably the most competitive category in the supermarket, and in-store marketing is a very important part of all our promotional programs and it can be and is very effective," says Bill Fasano, marketing services director who handles Post cereals for Kraft Foods, White Plains, N.Y. He offered an outlook for sampling in a talk at the Promotion Marketing Association of America's "Trial and Conversion" seminar in New York recently. "The trend in sampling can only get better in the next five to 10 years. The dollars speak for themselves."

Another Kraft unit, Oscar Mayer Foods Corp., Madison, Wis., recently premiered the first line of fat-free packaged, processed lunch meats and hot dogs. Company executives say sampling efforts are planned for the products' introduction later this year.

"It makes sense for them -- they have unique products with great taste so they have great interest and belief in sampling," says a company official.

Elizabeth Wrenn-Adams, director of promotion services at Nabisco Foods Group, Parsippany, N.J., says sampling efforts are on the upswing at her company.

"Because we're always looking to interrupt the purchase decision, the ultimate place to do that is in the store," she says. "I think that you're going to see us increase our dollars and look toward sampling as a way of increasing our [consumer] base." She made her remarks at the PMAA seminar.

But simply giving out prepackaged product samples is not always the way to go. In other words, uniqueness and original-

ity count.

· For example, when Mott's USA, a division of Cadbury Schweppes, Stamford, Conn., wanted to encourage the use of its applesauce as an ingredient, the company developed recipes for it. It then handed out samples of the recipes in-store, along with a recipe booklet and a coupon.

· With the purchase of two of its cookie dough products, Pillsbury Co., Minneapolis, gave shoppers a toy Doughboy -- the company's pudgy, giggling mascot.

"Those types of programs are very much in vogue," says David Schwartz, president of Super Marketing, Minneapolis. "Most sampling programs are taking on very, very interesting dynamics in that they're offering a very good value to the consumer."

Premium items and co-op arrangements -- joint sampling with brands in other noncompeting categories -- are ideas that are thriving in the marketplace today, says Schwartz.

Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, regularly samples its Pantene Pro-V shampoo, says Victor Bellino, hair care category account executive, but two of the company's brands -- and Oil of Olay skin cream -- will be featured together for the first time this spring.

Retailers will "qualify" for a one-day or two-day demonstration based on their case purchases. Consumers will be educated on the shampoo's attributes via an informational tape playing in a VCR and a brochure that will be distributed by the demonstrator.

The skin cream will be available for consumers to sample. They will also be given a coupon worth $1 toward moisturizing body wash or a bundle of Oil of Olay bar soap, plus a 55-cent coupon for Oil of Olay moisturizers.

"In the value-priced environment in this industry, this enables the retailer to drive sales without a focus on price point. Anybody can drop the price point or drop a coupon," says Bellino. "If you want to focus on loyalty and trial, in-store demos are an effective way to build long-term trial and loyalty."

Frito-Lay, Plano, Texas, gave out samples around the country this winter to show off newly designed packages of its Doritos tortilla chips. Because they hit the market at the end of January, the company also tied in with its "Road to the Super Bowl" promotion.

"We have huge Super Bowl displays now in the stores with NFL POS," said Lynn Markley, a Frito-Lay spokeswoman. "The product was sampled in 8,000 stores. We gave out commemorative, sample-sized packages with the Super Bowl logo."

In some instances sampling might not just be the best way to gain trial -- it may be the only way. The more fierce the category competition, the more dangerous the new product introduction.

When launching its Mentadent brand of toothpaste, Chesebrough-Pond's, Greenwich, Conn., engaged in broad-scale sampling via the retail trade and newspaper distribution.

"They were in a very competitive category and they knew that the only way they were going to

penetrate the category was to get people to actually try the product," says Jon Rubin, vice president of marketing at Actmedia, Norwalk, Conn., which handled the project.

Warner-Lambert Co.'s American Chicle division, Morris Plains, N.J., won the American Marketing Association's 1994 award for best new product of the year for its Fruit Waves hard candy, which was licensed from Ocean Spray Cranberries.

When the product was introduced last July, the company embarked on a nationwide sampling program, distributing it in four distinct ways: consumer intercepts in public places, Carol Wright direct mail, neck-hangers on bottles of Ocean Spray juices and in-store sampling.

"Sampling is very effective, and as a marketer, when I look at sampling, I look at not just one channel but I try to be comprehensive and get the product into consumers' hands in a variety of ways," says Andrea Waldman, senior product manager for Ocean Spray Fruit Waves at Warner-Lambert.

Although its category is not considered highly competitive, NutraSweet Co., Deerfield, Ill., has its own reasons for sampling its NutraSweet Spoonful product: "The sugar substitute category is not a very top-of-mind category, so we need constant reminders to get people to remember the product and to try the product," says Sue Friestad, promotion manager at NutraSweet.

NutraSweet handles sampling in an unusual fashion. Thomas J. Lipton, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., is the company's grocery broker. NutraSweet allocates a budget to Lipton, which in turn acts as its sales force, arranging demos and dealing with the trade in general.

This allows the sales force to tailor programs to the needs of an individual retailer or a specific region. For example, sampling programs in the West were co-opped with Healthy Choice cereals.

Friestad says this is less expensive and carries more weight with the trade than hiring a demo company. "If our sales force does it themselves, they can get more product on display than if they sell in a program from a national service," she says.

Robert Lieberman, president of the National Association of Demonstration Companies, points to the increase in member businesses as proof that the sampling and demonstration industry is becoming more popular. Lieberman is also president of All-Ways Advertising Co., Bloomfield, N.J.

"Yes, we are popular, we are successful, we are in vogue, everything is right," he says. "But there are caution flags. We've got to be measurable, we've got to reward those people who utilize our services, and the way to reward is with a quality performance."