You Try, You Buy

Day-parts, employees factor into successful foodservice sampling.

Abbie Westra, Director, Editorial, CSP

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Grocery stores have known its check-building power all along, and club stores such as Costco actually drive traffic with it. It’s sampling, a crucial tool in boosting foodservice sales. Sampling tells custom­ers you’re confident in your foodservice offer. It signifies freshness, induces trial and adds to the theater of foodservice by triggering the senses of taste, smell and even touch.

“What better way to help make your location a destination?” asks Jerry Ryker, executive vice president of business development for Land Mark Products and Piccadilly Circus Pizza, Milford, Iowa. “Foodservice is the best gross-profit generator in the [convenience] store for inside sales. So why wouldn’t you want to drive that category as hard as possible?”

“There is nothing better than sam­pling for trial of a new product. Well, maybe offering it for free,” jokes Jennifer Vespole, director of foodservice for Quick Chek Corp., Whitehouse Station, N.J.

Many convenience retailers are already engaging in some level of sampling, be it for grand openings or new product roll­outs. But are you sampling effectively, or just feeding the masses with stale, unsel­lable food?

Not only should sampling be a stan­dard operating procedure in your stores, but you must also implement certain strategies to actually generate sales. What’s more, how you look at the costs associated with sampling will greatly affect its success.

So are you sampling, and accounting for it, effectively?

Strategizing Sampling

While many c-stores have mastered sampling, CSP sought out strategies from the original sampling savant: the supermarket. And Lund Food Holdings, which operates 22 Lunds and Byerly’s grocery stores in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market, has elevated sampling to a very profitable art.

The company used to outsource its sampling program to a demo agency, “but that wasn’t doing us any favors because the people didn’t know the product. They had no passion,” says Byron Hanson, director of deli, bakery and food ser­vices. So it hired its own dedicated food samplers, called them Foodie Experts, and empowered them with a store full of products to sample.

Sampling at Lunds and Byerly’s stores happens weekly, with an emphasis on home meal replacements Thursday through Sunday from 4 to 6 p.m. Friday afternoons are especially busy with the company’s Five-Buck Cluck rotisserie chicken special. When the special began in 2009, the stores were selling about 500 chickens systemwide. Now, nearly 4,500 chickens fly out the doors on Fridays.

Hanson estimates 60% to 70% of those who try a sample go on to buy the product—so long as it’s through a staffed station vs. just a table with food on it. Of self-sampling, he says, “You tend to just feed the masses rather than educate them on a product.”

The Foodie Experts work with the department or category manager to learn about the given product to be sampled, and they often pair items from separate departments to drive sales across the store.

Vendors play a large role in the sam­pling program. They pay for a four-hour demo in all 22 stores, with the fees cover­ing product costs. Hanson recommends working closely with vendors to get prod­ucts in for sampling. “If you have 3,000 people in one store on a Saturday, you can run through a lot of product. Then multiply that by 21 stores,” he says.

Sampling at Lunds and Byerly’s is all about the customer-employee interaction—hence the emphasis on the Foodie Experts, whose nametags are even stamped as such. Much of the sampling includes some level of food preparation to add to the level of theater and interaction.

“When people say ‘I can’t sell that,’ it really has to do with the quality of the person sampling,” says Hanson. “The person sampling has to believe in it. It’s tough to get passionate about pickled pig’s feet if you don’t like them.”

For Vespole of Quick Chek, sampling typically occurs around grand openings and new menu items. Grand openings are given special care, with schedules cre­ated down to the hour and advertised as such to customers. Like at Lunds and Byerly’s stores, store associates sample by walking around and interacting with guests—despite labor costs and schedul­ing being the biggest pitfall to sampling, says Vespole. Sampling requires taking someone off the prep line to walk around to store, she explains, which means add­ing another person to the line to be ready for rushes.

At Tri Star Energy’s Twice Daily stores, sampling occurs daily from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. every other 15 minutes, explains Ryan White, foodservice category man­ager for the Nashville-based chain. And, as with the Foodie Experts at Lunds and Byerly’s, sampling at Twice Daily is all about the hosts and hostesses. These team members, who are outfitted in black chef ’s coats and black and white chef ’s pants and carry samples on a silver tray with white doilies, are considered the store tour guide. They inform the guests of specials and product locations and practice careful suggestive selling: “If a hostess sees a guest with a sandwich in hand, it may be appropriate to offer the guest a cool, refreshing iced tea, or hot, fresh cup of coffee to go with the food item,” White says.

With that responsibility, of course, comes risk. “If this person is not up to standard, then misrepresentation of the company is the result. The hostess is critical to the brand and needs to know just how important they really are,” says White.

The time of day and products to be sampled are important parts of the sampling formula, and two strategies are effective. Sampling products for the next day-part—lunch items during the morn­ing rush, for example—can persuade regular day-part customers to return dur­ing a different time. Provide bounce-back coupons to encourage their return.

Immediate day-part sampling is also effective. White of Tri Star follows this method, offering 2-ounce yogurt parfaits and pieces of breakfast sandwiches in the morning, and miniature fruit and vegetable cups and slices of sandwiches in the afternoon. Deborah Holand, consult­ing partner with Lake Forest, Ill.-based b2b Solutions, advises operators to make sure the product is being sampled within arm’s reach of the product.

“Impulsive products that can be grabbed at the demo on the cart, rather than sending the customer 2 to 4 feet away, can increase sales by 50% to 100%,” Holand says.

Ryker of Land Mark/Piccadilly rec­ommends not only employee-manned sampling, but also for those employees to take samples out to the gas pumps and beyond to neighborhood busi­nesses. “And don’t just sample at break­fast because it’s easy because you have extra staff. Mix it up,” he says.

The Piccadilly brand has a sampling program it uses with new retailer cus­tomers to build initial awareness. It pro­vides an allowance for product, helpful guidelines and a POS kit. It recommends stores sample for a solid week to capture customers who visit the store just one day a week.

After the initial push, Piccadilly recom­mends retailers sample once a month and around anniversaries and product rollouts.

Quick Chek’s Vespole, like Hanson, works with vendors for assistance on sampling promotions, and Holand rec­ommends getting a sampling budget of 5% from vendors, “using 2% to 3% and piling up the rest for blowout promotions and bundles, when vendor programs are hard to get.”

Dana Evaro, chief marketing officer of Land Mark Products/Piccadilly Circus Pizza, recommends stationing employees near the front door with a small bite to sample. From there, direct the customer to the merchandiser.

“It’s not feeding them lunch or break­fast. It’s wetting their palate enough to where you want to entice them to go buy it,” he says.

Compliance with local food-safety regulations is a crucial element of any sampling program. Check with your local jurisdiction for employee training requirements, hygiene and sanitation rules, food contamination protection and time/temperature control regulations. Rules may include special training for any food handlers, how a customer can come into contact with the food item, and a pre-determination of how food not given away will be handled, explains George Zameska, vice president of regulatory affairs for Paster Training Inc., Gilberts­ville, Pa. These rules will vary from city to city, so multi-city chains should fol­low the rules of the jurisdiction with the strictest standards.

Retailers might be required to obtain a special permit for sampling, Zameska says, but typically it is covered as part of an operator license.

Pitfalls and P&Ls

Of course, there are traps in food sam­pling. Because sampling is meant to show you’re in the foodservice game, ensure you’re putting your best foot forward. Have a sanitary yet appetizing display. Keep it bountiful just as you do merchan­disers, and make sure employees are well educated on the product.

And while most sampling programs often revolve around new products and programs, don’t forget to remind custom­ers of existing items. Ryker says, “You can’t just open the doors and do a marketing campaign once and that’s it. Why does continuous advertising work? Awareness.”

Perhaps the deadliest pitfall in sam­pling is using it as waste control. You want customers to believe it’s a high-quality product worthy of their money, not a give­away rescued from going into the trash.

“Criteria No. 1: The product has to be 100% absolutely fresh. If not, then you can’t sample it,” says Evaro.

Which leads to the sticky question of how to account for sampling on P&L statements. Holand recommends treat­ing sampling as a separate line item, just like coupon sales and waste, because “it is truly a marketing and promoting function, vs. a cost of goods sold,” she explains. “It should hit the marketing budget, and in all cases except private label, [use] vendor rebates.”

The strategy of sampling brings up a perennial question for c-stores struggling with foodservice financials: Are you run­ning your program like a retail business, or a foodservice business?

Convenience retailing is a penny-profit business, but margin pressure and waste control weigh heavily on retailers’ minds.

“If you want to be truly successful in foodservice, you have to grasp the value that top-line sales is the key to success,” Ryker says. “Management on the back side will need to happen, but not at the expense of losing top-line sales.”

What’s more, think about the total bas­ket. Foodservice sales drive beverage, chip and other snack sales, too, which make foodservice sales all the more valuable.

“At the end of the day, I’ll bet you end up putting more money in your pocket with that kind of mentality than if you said, ‘I can’t give it away,’ ” says Ryker.

The biggest benefit to sampling, says Evaro, “is there’s no B.S. You can put a sign out front all day long that says, ‘We have the best pizza.’ … Give them the product and if they make up their minds that it’s good, you have a more solid potential long-term customer.”

Sampling Toolbox

Use these strategies to maximize the benefits of sampling:

  • When sampling products for upcom­ing day-parts, hand out bounce-back coupons to further entice customers to come back.
  • When sampling products for immedi­ate sales, be sure to sample nearby the actual product for impulse purchases.
  • Sample multiple products at once— sandwiches with a new flavor of chips, a cookie with coffee—to boost sales across categories.
  • Employee-manned sampling is more effective than self-sampling; you’re edu­cating the customer instead of feeding them lunch.
  • Treat sampling as a function of mar­keting, not cost of goods sold, and work with vendors on a sampling budget.
  • Focus not on the costs incurred but on sampling’s effect on top-line sales.

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