Unilever Looks to Marry In-Store Sampling With E-commerce

Program targets Coastal.com and Beyond The Rack customers

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Unilever is trying to take the idea of free product sampling normally seen in store aisles and apply it to ecommerce. For Tresemmé, Nexus, Dove Hair, Clear Dove's Men and Dove's Men, the Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based firm is placing samples for those hair care brands in shipments going out to customers for Coastal.com and Beyond The Rack, among other e-commerce players.

Partnering with marketing firm Exact Media, it's the first time that Pinky Tang, assistant brand manager at Unilever, and her team have worked with online retailers in a targeted manner to put its brands in boxes going out to North American homes. (The effort has launched in Canada, while a U.S. rollout is planned for the coming weeks.)

To Tang's point about targeting, Unilever can dictate that Tresemmé—which she explained has been raising its profile in the fashion world—is only distributed to people who are buying higher-end apparel and accessories through Beyond The Rack. Other kinds of purchasers will not receive Tresemmé.

As another example, if a retail customer orders anti-aging products, Unilever can pitch Nexus' so-called youth-renewal items. The CPG predicts the return-on-investment will trump the more-random sampling traditionally seen in stores.

The Exact Media system will also invite e-commerce customers to request particular Unilever samples during checkout. And typically, the system will pitch an additional product-specific question for the sake of marketing research. So, Tang and her team hope to gather data, too. All in all, the program is supposed to zero in on consumers at the geography, purchase behavior, age and gender levels.

"We feel the possibilities are endless in terms of being able to target people that we want," said Tang, speaking with Adweek. She said the program would reach more than one million households during the next few months, while adding that being able to piggyback onto mailings provided by partners boosts the sampling program's ROI.

"That's why it's such a clever idea," Tang explained. "It costs us a lot of money to produce these samples, so we want to avoid waste whenever possible."

Exact Media's sampling network has been in beta phase for the last six months. It is also being utilized by Procter & Gamble brands and currently can reach 25 million households. "We are probably going to triple that number this year across North America," said Ray Cao, cofounder of the New York-based vendor.

But do consumers want to be bothered with product add-ons—even if they are complimentary?

"Feedback from our customers has been entirely positive," claimed Braden Hoeppner, vp of marketing at Coastal.com, which specializes in discount prescription eyeglasses.

Lastly, one would assume that the Amazons and the eBays or the world might be next in line when it comes to offering e-commerce sampling programs. But Cindy Johnson, principal of Sampling Effectiveness Advisors in Miamitown, Ohio, doesn't think so. 

Johnson said her company in recent years attempted to help Home Shopping Network set up such a system—only to find that it causes major order fulfillment problems. Accurate and speedy processes are the lifeblood to positive customer experiences and ultimately healthy e-commerce businesses, she suggested.

"If you are trying to put one sample in this box and another sample in another kind of order [based on purchases], no one wants to complicate their fulfillment process like that," Johnson asserted. "Most brands are looking for specific targeting where you can easily, for instance, hit every affluent female customer for a cataloger such as Boston Proper."

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.