Offering consumers a tempting tidbit is a standard sales technique, and retailers continue to run extensive sampling programs in the Center Store.According to Joe Benites, managing director of Hispanic Force USA, a national promotions management company with offices in Westport, Conn., and Los Angeles, one of the most important components in any sampling event is cooperation throughout the entire

Offering consumers a tempting tidbit is a standard sales technique, and retailers continue to run extensive sampling programs in the Center Store.

According to Joe Benites, managing director of Hispanic Force USA, a national promotions management company with offices in Westport, Conn., and Los Angeles, one of the most important components in any sampling event is cooperation throughout the entire chain, from manufacturer to broker to retailer.

"If the retailer really becomes involved, perhaps offering a special price on the sample product, chances are you're going to move a lot more product," he said. "And the brokers have to become involved too; otherwise there won't be enough product, or maybe no product at all. Everything must be in sync."

Benites believes that engaging the customer at the store level is also a key factor. To that end, his company employs a bilingual staff, catering to the Hispanic customer base. "When the staff does not speak the language of the consumer, nothing happens," claimed Benites. "The customer is intimidated. They have to feel comfortable approaching the booth with questions. That kind of interaction is very important."

The company also strives to draw customers in with the addition of some promotional flair beyond the product being sampled.

"We want to create a fiesta-type atmosphere at the store level, not just someone standing at a table," explained Benites. "If possible, we try to create that atmosphere before the customer enters the store."

As examples, Benites cited popular disc jockeys or a Moon Bounce for children as being very effective tools. The average number of people to stop at a sampling booth on any given day is between 250 and 300, according to Benites, but he has seen that number rise to as high as 1,200 in conjunction with parking lot promotions.

Benites also noted the unusually high redemption rate of point-of-sale coupons during sampling events. He has witnessed a 30% redemption rate on POS coupons in connection with sampling, compared to the standard 0.5% to 1% redemption rate of FSI coupons in the Hispanic market.

Retailers SN spoke with were in agreement concerning the universal appeal of in-store sampling, with many maintaining demo programs on a regular, sometimes weekly, basis. Although free food is not a strictly seasonal draw, special events, like the holidays, help to create the festive forum.

"Our sampling program is an ongoing, year-round affair," said Bill Gillispie, director of dairy, frozen and DSD category management for Supervalu, Minneapolis. "But during themed events, the holidays, back-to-school or the Super Bowl, we'll do more."

Gillispie pointed to this year's Halloween gala at one of the wholesaler's retail formats Cub Foods, as a particularly successful sampling opportunity. The different departments were merchandised together throughout the store, and the sampling went a long way toward making Cub the complete destination for Halloween, he said.

Indeed, according to Roger Sargent, the chief executive officer of Sacramento, Calif.-based Five Star Demonstration Service -- handling in-house demos for Save Mart, Modesto, Calif., and Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif., among others -- the sampling business has a distinct annual cycle.

"The back-to-school season is generally pretty strong, while January will be pretty slow because companies are getting their budgets together," Sargent said. "November and December are busy. You have a lot of manufacturers, like Pillsbury, running holiday promotions, but sometimes it can be trying for retailers at that time of year."

Nita Tucker, director of specialty foods and floral at Minyard's, Coppel, Texas, agrees with Sargent's assessment of the difficulties inherent in holiday demos.

"We usually accept all the demos we can get, but we do not accept demos during the holidays, like Labor Day weekend, or the weekend after Thanksgiving," Tucker told SN.

And, she said, it has nothing to do with increased store traffic. The problem is simply that people have a tendency to cancel on big weekends -- having made other plans with family and friends -- and the vendor staff doesn't show up.

In fact, Tucker sees this as an increasing problem within the industry in general, given manufacturers' current penchant for national marketing companies, leaving local vendors out of the loop. When the local representative has no knowledge of the demo schedule, obvious logistical problems can arise, such as a lack of product.

"There are some good agencies out there, but we'd rather have the local people know," maintains Tucker.

Just about anything will work as a sample item; however, most manufacturers will approach retailers when they are introducing a new item, or perhaps with the hope of increasing sales on an item that is lagging. Tucker sees a lot of frozen sampling in her stores, and attributes this to the fact that frozen foods are easier, and perhaps more interesting, than some other Center Store products.

"There is nothing very exciting about opening a can," she said.

Cross merchandising can spice up a sampling prospect, and three Minyard's stores have a sampling kitchen, called the Meal Center, set up to mimic a standard home kitchen. The last one installed was the largest at 100 square feet -- an island surrounded by refrigerated cases. Often a manufacturer will be showcasing a particular cut of meat, but the grocery aisles really feel the benefit when a chef comes in to do a demonstration supporting a book, said Tucker.

"A chef will prepare a complete meal, really involving the entire store," explained Tucker. "Spices, sauces, it's all in there."

The chip-and-dip and cracker-and-spread combos are commonly presented as complementary items. While Tucker does not see much in the way of partnership sampling between brands, Five Star's Sargent cited partnership sampling as a definite trend.

"At Save Mart, part of the demo program revolves around recipes," explained Sargent. "For example, our in-house employee will come up with a recipe for Cinco de Mayo, and the recipe will include tortillas, chips, salsa and dip. Four different manufacturers may get involved in something like this."

Sargent asserted that partnership sampling is a beneficial relationship to all involved. From the retailer angle, involving multiple brands helps increase sales at the store level. For the manufacturers, splitting the cost of the demo stretches their budgets, allowing them to hit more stores.

Sampling is also a popular way to promote private-label offerings, and store-brand offerings garner exposure as secondary tie-ins in addition to being the main attraction. Sargent has found Save Mart doesn't focus on private-label offerings to any great extent in its sampling program, although they are always demostrated at store openings. However, whenever an extra item is required, for instance, the cream and sugar complementing the coffee, the private-label product is available.

On the other hand, Safeway does a great deal of private-label sampling, according to Sargent, and the private-label buyer makes the decision concerning which items to offer and when.

"You'll see them go with soda pop in the summer and soup in the winter," he said. "And, of course, there are core items, like peanut butter, that will be around all year."

Ideally, a demo table should be set up in close proximity to the product being sampled, but spatial constraints sometimes make this impossible.

"We like to set up right next to the product in order to sell right off the stack," said Sargent. "But in the end, we are guests and it is up to the individual store manager. If we can't sell off the stack, we sell off the table."

At Jax Markets, Anaheim, Calif., samples are generally set up around the perimeters, regardless of where the item is found on the shelves, said Bill MacAloney, chairman and chief executive officer.

"We always do it in the same area, trying to give the person that is sampling the greatest traffic flow," he said. "And sometimes it gets too tight near the aisle. We want a location where people can ask questions."