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Something for Nothing

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M ore than 19,000 new food and beverage products were introduced in 2009, according to information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s a lot of manufacturers and merchants trying to capture customers’ attention and interest.

“The most difficult aspect to marketing is getting the customer to try the product, especially if they don’t know it,” says Richard George, professor and chair of the department of food marketing at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. That’s where free samples come in. Customers feel better, knowing they’re not plunking down money for something they might not like; retailers benefit as well, as offering product samples is a way to differentiate themselves. “Retailers show that they’re current and contemporary,” George says.

Moreover, customers who partake of the items offered as samples often decide to consume more overall, says a study from Stephen Nowlis, professor of marketing at Arizona State University. “Sampling any high-incentive item in a grocery store is likely to increase the subsequent desirability and purchase of that particular product,” says Nowlis, “as well as other rewarding items.”

Product sampling tends to be most effective when two criteria are met, George says. The item being offered has to be a quality product: Giving away samples of inferior goods is unlikely to persuade customers to ditch their current brand for the new one. Product sampling is also valuable when the product is difficult to describe, as it allows potential customers to actually see and taste how the item differs from its competitors.

Low cost, high effectiveness
S nack Factory, parent company behind pretzel/cracker hybrid Pretzel Crisps, found the ability to entice potential customers to try the snack has been one key to the product’s success. “We have a unique product — it’s a flat pretzel cracker,” says Perry Abbenante, vice president of marketing. “We feel we need to get the product in people’s mouths.”

To that end, Snack Factory has been using product sampling, among other marketing tactics, to introduce Pretzel Crisps to potential customers. Field marketing teams in key markets hold sampling events at grocery stores, as well as at community events like Taste of Chicago.

Product sampling in stores and at events currently represents less than 15 percent of the company’s marketing budget, largely because Snack Factory already has employees in these locations who can manage the events, as well as storage facilities for their products. Nonetheless, it’s been effective, Abbenante says. “We have a conversion rate of 25 to 30 percent, vs. an industry average of probably one-fourth of this.”

Connect and educate
J ust about every weekend for the past 18 months, Maia Yogurt founder Hamilton Colwell and marketing associate Rachel Unger have stationed themselves at stores in the company’s New York and Connecticut sales areas. Along with offering samples of the company’s all-natural, low-fat probiotic yogurt, the two answer customers’ questions and provide information on the product.

“We connect to consumers and educate them,” Unger says. Being available to answer questions helps at least some customers make the switch from their current brand to Maia, she adds.

To date, product sampling has been Maia Yogurt’s biggest marketing effort. It appears to be paying off: Launched two years ago, Maia Yogurt will soon be available in 70 additional stores, including Big Y, IGA and Dave’s Marketplace locations. “We really feel that product sampling has definitely driven trials and sales,” Unger says.

While Unger and Colwell can’t be in all 70 stores at once, they plan to continue the product sampling events, Unger says. To conduct the sessions across this larger group of stores, the company has advertised for brand ambassadors among college students in the area, as well as on Craigslist. Among the qualities Maia looks for in demonstrators, according to Unger: “Energy, passion, friendliness. Someone who can talk, who can carry on a conversation.”

Presentation and personality
A lthough conducting a product sampling may seem straightforward, getting the details right can make all the difference. “All selling is theatre,” George says. Placing the sampling station in an area of the store that’s well-lit and comfortable is key. In addition, the product itself should be stocked near the sampling station, and the individual manning the station should be approachable, friendly and enthusiastic without being pushy. “Make it a show,” he says. “Make it fun.”

While Abbenante and Unger have been able to use employees to conduct the product sampling, engaging a third party that does nothing but product sampling can be an effective tactic, George says. These workers know how to present products effectively and safely. Moreover, the cost can be reasonable, he says, typically ranging from about $150 to $350 per store event.

Recording the sales that result from a product sampling event is paramount, Abbenante says. Pretzel Crisps tracks the purchases that occur at sampling events to gauge their effectiveness and determine how they compare to the company’s other marketing campaigns.

Remember, though: Product sampling campaigns usually have limits. “You can’t do it forever,” Unger says. It works best for new brands, and will likely be less effective with products that already are well-known and distributed nationally.

While the benefits of a product sampling session to the manufacturer are fairly clear, the retailer also comes out ahead, George says. Hosting product demonstrations creates a sense of excitement. “It’s a fun thing,” he says. Moreover, retailers typically don’t incur any costs, other than making floor space available.

“With all the high tech in our world, sampling can be a good old-fashioned way to differentiate,” George says. “Everything else in a store we have to pay for. We all like Christmas and our birthdays.”