Retailers are seeking innovative ways of putting traditional in-store sampling to work, and in many cases their techniques are catching on. Supermarket chains look to leverage greater sales and marketing opportunities in everything from nontraditional hours for in-store sampling, to "retailtainment" events, to unique uses of dedicated space, and consumers are responding to the best of these programs.The

Retailers are seeking innovative ways of putting traditional in-store sampling to work, and in many cases their techniques are catching on. Supermarket chains look to leverage greater sales and marketing opportunities in everything from nontraditional hours for in-store sampling, to "retailtainment" events, to unique uses of dedicated space, and consumers are responding to the best of these programs.

The end goal is definitive: to enhance the shopping experience of customers in the store and encourage them to part with more spending dollars.

As for in-store sampling, "the advantages range from a boost in product sales to making customers' shopping experience more enjoyable to defining solutions for 'what do I do for dinner tonight,"' said Kirk Zebley, demo program manager, Wal-Mart Stores.

For those who don't want to be bothered with meal preparation, "in-store sampling can offer recipes and ways to prepare quick, simple, good meals at home at a far lower expense than eating out. Many customers sample a product and determine this would be a great idea for dinner tonight. It's hard to make that kind of a decision by looking at a picture on a box," Zebley said.

In-store sampling "serves as both product introduction and to heighten sales," said Ray West, communications manager, central region, Shop 'n Save, Xenia, Ohio, a food wholesaler that supplies 90 different independent stores in the area. While Shop 'n Save's "approach is not as consistent as for a chain, our stores do employ in-store sampling," West said.

Shop 'n Save supports in-store sampling through marketing and using an outside vendor to staff sampling events, West said.

One of the ways retailers like Wal-Mart capitalize on in-store sampling as a vehicle to motivate customers is through using nontraditional hours for sampling. With a proprietary internal tracking and scanning system, "We have the ability to accurately determine when traffic is the heaviest in the stores and schedule demos to correspond to those peak traffic times and days," Zebley said.

Marketing consulting firm Sunflower Group, Overland Park, Kan., which specializes in store marketing for food retailers Kroger, Cincinnati, Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif., and H.E. Butt, San Antonio, Tex., among others, has developed an in-store sampling concept in which Wednesday and Thursday evenings are targeted to accommodate consumers who work late, said Bobby Dodd, executive vice president, Sunflower Group.

"Everyone wants to do sampling on Saturday, but that's a finite time to do so," Dodd said.

"If I'm a manufacturer that has a different solution, Monday night in California might be a good time for me to do my event," said Sarah Willis, vice president, marketing, Mass Connections, La Marada, Calif. In the summer, people are busy during weekends and use Monday nights for shopping, Willis said. The firm handles in-store marketing for food retailers including Jewel, Melrose Park, Ill., Fleming, Dallas, and Stater Bros., Colton, Calif.

Some retailers use in-store demos both during traditional and non-traditional hours. "With 150,000 customers coming through here every day, we run in-store demos seven days a week, and we could have six or seven going on at any given time," said Tom Anrico, executive director, fresh foods, Stew Leonard's, Norwalk, Conn.

Retailers also capture customers' attention through unique ways of using dedicated space for in-store sampling. "Each store's management chooses the demo locations within the store based on corporate direction and the product being demonstrated," said Zebley.

"We try to make in-store sampling different and fun," said Anrico. At Stew Leonard's, the bakery, grocery, produce, and meat departments and the salad bar all have physical places for a demo area," said Anrico. "Wherever there's a display, there's a demo area." Other retailers try to boost customers' awareness of undershopped store areas. Consumers who shop the periphery of a store for meat, dairy, and deli items, but don't go near the center aisles offer a challenge to manufacturers, Willis said. The solution: retailers need to hold in-store sampling demos in the periphery to promote mayonnaise, rice, pickles, and other center-aisle items to drive customers to shop for those items, Willis said.

Many retailers are turning to in-store sampling to promote their own brands. "We'll make a different hamburger for this time of year with olives and teriyaki, and our chef makes a special cold soup, so we'll demo those," Anrico said. "We do in-store sampling to introduce Shaw's own branded products, which is one way that we let customers know our brands are as good as national brands. That's a real strong arrow for us," said Bernard Rogan, director of public relations, Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass.

Why sample just orange juice when you can try a bagel and cream cheese too? That is the attitude of retailers going after offering customers full-meal solutions. By co-marketing more than one item at a time, retailers stand to make their products stand out in the store. "It's a combination of tie-in products, meal solutions, signing, and in-store demos," Zebley said.

"While at one time, stores would offer one type of barbecue sauce, now you will see three or four kinds, plus marinading sauces," said West, who noted that Shop 'n Save also employs full-meal solutions in sampling.

It used to be that basic items like chips and dips were offered in sampling; now there's no limit to what you can sample in stores, according to many retailers. What can be sampled? "Any item that is approved by the respective buyer and paid for by the supplier, provided it is an item carried in our stores," Zebley said.

While every section of the store is sampleable, "there are some items that are harder to sample, such as cleaning items," Rogan said, although he doesn't see any other kinds of limitations to sampling.

"Instead of offering just barbecue sauce," Shaw's lets customers sample the whole cookout, Rogan said. At Wegman's, Rochester, N.Y., customers can buy a steak and cook it right there.

More and more manufacturers and retailers are looking to offer "profile demos," which are targeted at customers in a specific age range or ethnic background. "We encourage suppliers to set up demo events for area-specific products that may not have chain-wide recognition or sales, as well as full-chain events," Zebley said.

In-store sampling may be part science, but it is also part "retailtainment," or an effort to make the shopping experience more of a fun event, retailers said. "Certainly shopping shouldn't be a dreaded nightmare. It is an essential part of our lives. If we can make it a little more enjoyable through retailtainment, we will strive to do so," Zebley said.

The entertainment value of putting makeup artists in Wal-Mart stores to feature Procter & Gamble cosmetic brands is high, and works for customers who don't expect this kind of thing in the stores. "Whereas manufacturers have already done the cubed cheese thing, retailers are asking, 'how can I make sampling my product more fun?"' Willis said.

Mass Connections has also managed grand-opening store events for Wal-Mart for several years. "Every time they open a store, we will have a whole campaign with 10 to 15 products they are opening the store with," Willis said.

Stew Leonards' shopping events run the gamut from hoedowns to a Kid's Fun Day, complete with face painters and magicians. "Those are the extra things we offer" to capture customers' interest, Anrico said.

As to whether in-store sampling should be retailer- or vendor-sponsored, retailers offer varying points of view. Wal-Mart and other big chains use outside vendors to staff in-store sampling demo events to cut back on both sampling administration and personnel costs.

While Stew Leonard's allows manufacturers to attend its in-store sampling events, "we almost never use outside demo vendors," Anrico said. "Our demo people know the Stew Leonard's culture; we use in-house people to staff our demos," he explained.

"If the salesperson wants to come in during the demo, that's fine, but our demo people know our customers," Anrico concluded.