SAMPLING IN SEATTLE IS A BIG HIT WITH SHOPPERS

SEATTLE (FNS) -- Sampling is taken to a new dimension at the Queen Anne Thriftway units, here. To begin with, the program isn't vendor sponsored, so the "menu" is dictated by the freshness of the day; there are no hired demo people lurking in aisles pressing coupons for unwanted items into the hands of consumers; and perishables are pushed, with produce taking a front-row seat in the action.Dedicated

SEATTLE (FNS) -- Sampling is taken to a new dimension at the Queen Anne Thriftway units, here. To begin with, the program isn't vendor sponsored, so the "menu" is dictated by the freshness of the day; there are no hired demo people lurking in aisles pressing coupons for unwanted items into the hands of consumers; and perishables are pushed, with produce taking a front-row seat in the action.

Dedicated demo space punctuates the commitment to the storewide program. On the day that SN visited two of the chain's locations, active sampling was conducted right at the store's entrance.

Customers were greeted by a cheerful Thriftway staff member carrying colorful pitted cherries and apricots. The cherries not only were convenient for shoppers, but they also promoted the cherry pitter available inside. Apricot samples got the flavor of the product into the mouth of the consumer -- just as they encountered an entranceway display.

Within the units, a dedicated kiosk space touted Caesar salad, using fresh Romaine lettuce and Queen Anne Thriftway's own signature dressing. Again, it was a Thriftway staffer who dished out a generous serving size.

"We really want people to think about food. It's part of the atmosphere of our stores," said Terry Halversen, owner of the three-unit group. "Produce is exciting, and it hardly ever gets into the promotional schedule because of the nature of the business. These are products where, generally, promotional dollars aren't built in, so we have to do produce promotions on our own nickel."

And promote they do. The sampling program started with demo stands. Indeed, it has become such a mainstay with the operator that during last year's remodel and expansion of the chain's West Seattle location, a stationary, built-in demo kiosk kitchen was included in the floor plan.

The operator hired its own demo staff to provide enough support for the stations and to keep them active. Sampling is conducted for 24 to 40 hours per week at each store, depending upon the time of year. In late summer and early fall, the kiosk demos are almost entirely produce related.

"Produce is so interesting, there's something new every day," said Halversen. "We celebrate the seasons. We show people what we're doing."

Halversen believes that sampling adds a new dimension of pleasure to shopping because it stimulates the senses.

"We have to keep supermarket shopping a fresh experience. It has to be touchy-feely, a part of people's life," he said. "If it becomes boring, customers will find it more fun to use the computer to shop for food. I want people in my stores experiencing and tasting. We've found that produce sampling adds to the pleasure of going to the food store."

"Being a smaller company, we seek out smaller quantities of top-notch produce, picked at its prime," Halversen pointed out. "It's not unlike anything else we do. We strive to bring in fresh product, and tell people about it."

Demos at the kiosks are conducted seven days a week, once or twice a day. During the week that SN toured the area, the chain featured recipes including items like green beans and mushrooms, grilled halibut with "four-fruit sassy slaw" and a shrimp salad that spotlighted the chain's signature marinade. Schedules are posted in the store and promoted in the chain's weekly specials flyer.

Adjacent to the kiosk, a rack with hanging cards contains complete recipes for the week, along with a few seasonal staples. Each main-dish recipe includes a wine suggestion.

Store entrances and demo kiosks may be two of the most logical places this Thriftway group samples its wares. But there's activity in all departments.

In the seafood section, managers routinely cook off product and offer tidbits to customers. In the deli, chefs are there tossing salads and cooking pasta dishes. There's usually a little extra, which is offered up as samples. During SN's visit to the West Seattle location, an employee circulated the food-service area with a tray of freshly prepared strawberry gelato, which is available on the mezzanine level.

Halversen said his Thriftway group doesn't have a loyalty-card system. Instead, it has relied on direct-marketing dollars to fund more interactive programs, such as sampling. He believes that the return on investment has been greater, since the sampling -- and staff interaction with the customer -- creates a richer shopping experience.