How food brands find new fans with in-store sampling

Shoppers at Whole Foods Market and other grocery retailers have come to expect the chance to taste and learn about new products through the in-store samplings that are increasingly part of the shopping experience.

The main goals of in-store samplings are to raise awareness about new products and boost sales, which is key to keeping a product on the shelf at stores where space is tight and can be hard to come by. They have become increasingly important as the number of new food startups has grown, and for retailers the events also provide an additional in-store experience that customers won’t find by shopping online.

“Often a customer goes into the store and builds a relationship with the demonstrator,” said Melissa LaCarrubba, co-founder of Starterup , which provides brand ambassadors for in-store samplings. “They can ask them about other products or ask for advice. The ambassadors become well-versed in products and issues and customers really appreciate that.”

That expertise and those relationships with shoppers can be a major factor in helping small businesses grow and giving in-store shoppers an experience they wouldn’t get anywhere else, she said.

Sampling is especially part of a positive experience at natural food grocers, from Whole Foods Market to small regional and independent concepts including Dean’s Natural Food Market, which operates four locations in New Jersey.

Each Dean’s store has daily samplings ranging from tastings of new sandwiches and smoothies prepared on-site to new vendor products to seasonal offerings that combine products from different departments, said Tom Amadruto, store manager at Dean’s location in Shrewsbury, N.J.

Because Dean’s is a small chain, there’s flexibility in deciding which products are sampled and employees in different departments have a chance to make suggestions and have input. Resulting combinations like apples and almond butter and apple cider warmed with mulling spices in the fall can boost sales across departments.

“We’re pretty big on encouraging that kind of thinking outside the box,” he said.

At Dean’s the sampling practices can encourage a camaraderie among customers. During one New Year’s season, samplings near the register at the Basking Ridge, N.J., store served to bring people together.

“Employees were handing out samples and it made the experience in line way more than just a line of people. They talked to each other and enjoyed it a lot more,” he said.

Foodies find their niche in in-store demos

Dean’s largely handles its daily samplings with in-house staff, while larger chains often contract with third-party firms that provide professionals who are well-versed in the products and the niches they’re representing.

Starterup, which launched in 2016, has about 40 contract brand ambassadors who do from 300 to 400 in-store samplings a month at retailers including Whole Foods, Wegmans, ShopRite, Kings and Fairway. The firm’s clients are natural product brands, many of them startup and early-stage companies, and the brand ambassadors who do the demos are chosen for their passion for natural products and their knowledge about food and ingredients.


Photo: Starterup

“These demonstrators are experienced, they’ve worked with a lot of companies before. They’re knowledgeable in healthy living and healthy eating. They have to be able to read labels and understand ingredients,” LaCarrubba said.

That foodie passion is what made the business a great fit for Colleen McCord, a brand ambassador who contracts with Starterup and other companies to do in-store samplings in the Northeast.

McCord is a mom who works a part-time job during the week and gets to share her foodie side during in-store samplings on the weekends.

“I love food and I love new products,” she said. “I always look for new products I can recommend to people and I love trying something new. That’s kind of how I fell into it.”

Her enthusiasm was obvious during a recent sampling of Off The Cob Chips at a New Jersey Wegmans store, as a smiling McCord chatted with shopper after shopper who stopped for a taste and an introduction to the product. McCord, who says she only demos products that pass her taste test, sees her role as much more than just handing out samples.

“I’m a natural people observer and I will target my speeches based on what they have in their carts. If you spot gluten-free bread, for example, I can say ‘Oh, this is a quality gluten-free product.’ Other than loving food, I love to engage people. To me, it’s not tiring it’s fun.”

The future of in-store sampling

Whole Foods, which has long had a regional buying system in place, used to have demo coordinators in each store, making it easy to set up samplings, LaCarrubba said. Then those positions were eliminated when the chain transitioned to a computerized scheduling system and there was a gap during which a single person was handling scheduling for all the stores in the Northeast region, she said. The process got smoothed out but now there’s concern as the retailer makes changes under Amazon’s ownership.

In January, The Washington Post reported on changes to the in-store demo system that would require suppliers to go through a single firm to set up samplings and pay a fee for four-hour demos. The changes haven’t hit yet, LaCarrubba said. At press time, Whole Foods had not responded to an interview request from SmartBrief.

In the Post story, Whole Foods executive Don Clark said "For the last two years, we have been working to streamline our processes to ensure all our suppliers are supported and set up for success. The changes to our in-store execution and demo programs are creating a consistent, high-quality experience that benefits both our suppliers and our customers."

Small vendors may have a different take on the changes.

“Honestly, I think they’d like all the demos to be in-house completely, but I feel like there’s a lot of pushback from small companies that are knowledgeable about the brands and have trained with the brands for a long time,” LaCarrubba said.

As changes come at Whole Foods, the rise in consumer demand for food information and healthy, natural products is spurring other grocers to add more samplings to their stores, she said.

“Those stores where demos aren’t as popular, we’re seeing a lot more opportunity in those stores. They’re becoming a lot more demo oriented. As Whole Foods pushes us out, other stores have been welcoming us.”

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