Increased sampling activity has shined a light on a minor but nettlesome issue: the "accountability" of event personnel in the store.
Retailers complain that sometimes demonstrators arrive on the wrong day, or not at all. While such instances are not common, say those involved in sampling programs, it has prompted some executives to look for ways to upgrade the standard of execution and professionalism.
"Ideally, the company that is providing samplers needs to ensure a well-trained work force that delivers what is promised," said Phil Morabito, a marketing professor at the University of Houston, who this summer consulted on the local launch of "maroon-colored" carrots distributed by J&D Produce, Edinburg, Texas.
In-store sampling was part of the marketing campaign for the carrots, which are maroon because of added beta-carotene. One event involved giving shoppers a free eye exam in the produce section of Kroger supermarkets in Houston. Twenty local optometrists volunteered to test shoppers' vision right alongside the sampling for carrots. Unfortunately, 17 optometrists canceled at the last minute, diminishing the event, said Morabito.
While the optometrists were volunteers and not paid professional samplers, one point is obvious: "No-shows" are no good under any circumstances, said Morabito.
"It really can be a communications nightmare unless you have a policy in place," said Jane Golub, manager of vendor income programs at Price Chopper, Schenectady, N.Y. "You really need to put in efficiencies to make sure that the store, the category manager and the demonstrator are aware of the sampling," said Golub, whose chain uses its own people to conduct 400 samplings a week in its 101 supermarkets in six Northeastern states.
Not every retailer wants to bear the expense or liability of its own demo staff. But Price Chopper's policy of having strict procedures and accountability is the expectation of all retailers.
"Accountability is certainly important to us," said Susan Hamilton, director of customer marketing, A&P, Montvale, N.J. "Every demonstrator in our stores has an 'audit form' filled out by their supervisor. Additionally, every demonstrator is required to fill out a report, which includes customer feedback."
Historically, there have been only a few ways to determine accountability: after-the-fact reporting by the demo agency and random audits by the in-store marketing company that hires the demo agency, said trading partners. The former calls for the samplers to have flawless memories and keep accurate records. The latter only checks a small number of stores.
Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark., is relying on a new method of accountability for sampling events in all its discount stores and supercenters, following a test earlier this year. It's an audit card that uses electronic transactions to track event personnel in the store. Developed by Mass Connections, Cerritos, Calif., the MC Card is now rolling out to 18 other retailers. Among them are: Kmart, Super Target, Harris Teeter, King Soopers and Randalls/Thom Thumb, according a company spokesperson. The rollouts are expected to be complete by the end of the year.
Wal-Mart decline to comment to SN on the MC Card. Various other retailers could not be reach for comment.
Here's how the card works: A sampler goes to the store with this activated "smart" card and swipes it at the point-of-sale register. The card is loaded with the date, time and hours of the event, and with funds to purchase the product to be sampled.
These actions can be tracked in real time on the Internet by the local demo agency and Mass Connections.
"Just having the card will cause samplers to be accountable," said Morabito, the marketing professor.