Grocery stores may be open to put products into the hands of consumers, but for CPG manufacturers, one of their most effective marketing tactics has been temporarily cut off: Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the practice of in-store food sampling is on pause.
“Overnight, in most instances, we shut down our business operations,” said Andrea Young, president of customer experience at Advantage Solutions, a leading provider of in-store sampling services whose partners include Walmart, Target, Kroger and Albertsons.
According to Young, most grocers backed away from providing in-store samples in early March, prior to President Trump declaring the coronavirus a national emergency on March 13.
For many CPG manufacturers, this development poses a problem because of how successful the marketing technique is at converting shoppers into customers. And some brands are already finding new and creative ways to continue getting their products into the hands of consumers.
Research published in the Journal of Retailing that examined six sets of sales data across four product categories found that in-store sampling works well at moving products in both the short and long term. Not only that, but it can also help boost the entire category.
“From a sales-generation perspective, it’s very effective,” said Jeffrey Dotson, a co-author of the study and associate professor of marketing at the BYU Marriott School of Business. “In the short run, it generates a bigger lift than, say, putting the product in a secondary location or featuring it in an advertisement.”
Food sampling drives sales because it lowers the risk and uncertainty involved in buying an unfamiliar product. Another factor at play is the feeling of reciprocity, where shoppers might get the sense that they owe something in return for receiving a complimentary cup of pasta or slice of sausage.
Dotson also pointed out that sampling tends to work better with indulgent items. “Things like cookies were more effective than things like canned corn,” he said.
Grocers can also benefit from in-store sampling, since providing free food to nibble on can be a source of excitement for consumers, elevating their retail experience. Survey data from market research firm Mintel shows that 61% of U.S. adults would like to see more samples of new products while shopping for groceries.
Snack brand Pipcorn, which debuted in 2012, helped establish itself through handing out free samples at farmers markets and Whole Foods. Since emerging brands don’t always get the best shelf placement in grocery aisles, it was a great way to raise awareness and personally connect with potential customers, according to Pipcorn co-founder Teresa Tsou.
“It’s really the face-to-face conversation,” Tsou said. “In-store sampling within Whole Foods—if we hadn’t done that, we would not be here today.”
Pipcorn was planning to introduce a new line of crackers via in-store sampling at Whole Foods when the Covid-19 outbreak hit. With that door closed, the company shifted its focus and dollars to digital options. It ran a program allowing customers who bought an item on their website to send a free product to one of their friends. Partnering with Ibotta, an app that offers shoppers cash back for making certain purchases, Pipcorn was able to offer free products to consumers who had never purchased the brand before. More than 1,000 people redeemed the coupon within the first 24 hours.
“We were actually able to reach so many more people than standing in an in-store demo for three or four hours,” Tsou said.
Unable to offer in-store samples, Ian Wishingrad, co-founder of the low-sugar, chickpea-based cereal startup Three Wishes, decided to set up a drive-thru sampling experience in the driveway of his home in Westchester, N.Y. (Wishingrad also hosts Adweek’s Q&A video series I’m With the Brand.) Wearing protective gear and using a pair of tongs to maintain social distance, he and his wife, Margaret, were able to safely hand out containers of their product to people in their vehicles.
While the stunt didn’t result in as many samples being handed out as a typical in-store promotion, it did attract a significant amount of media attention.
“Our orders are blowing up,” Wishingrad said. “My wife’s freaking out in the other room trying to fill it.”
Wishingrad added that they’re talking with retailers about setting up similar drive-by sampling programs in their parking lots.
Sampling isn’t just for young, upstart brands, either. When Coca-Cola released its first energy drink last January, the company had initially planned to market the new beverage through an experiential sampling program.
“For Coca-Cola Energy, tasting is believing, and we want as many people to taste the product as possible,” said Brandan Strickland, Coca-Cola’s brand director.
In light of the Covid-19 crisis and social distancing, Coca-Cola has adjusted its strategy, opting to insert its energy drinks into online grocery pick-up orders and donate them to front-line workers.
Since ceasing its in-store sampling services in early March, Advantage Solutions has leaned into innovative ways of creating similar moments for shoppers.
“The primary pivot is that we’ve gone from high-contact, high-touch hand-to-hand sampling to contactless or low-contact experiences that are largely tech-enabled,” Young explained.
Examples of this include digital demonstrations and virtual advisers accessible through text messaging. With more people using the web to purchase groceries, the company is also using the opportunity to accelerate its practice of adding trial products to online orders. In the past 60 days, the number of brands interested in using this sampling strategy has doubled, according to Advantage Solutions.
“Sampling will happen again in stores, there’s no doubt about it,” Young said. “But just like every other industry is going to reopen and look different, we’re not going to be any different than that.”
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