Sampling The Store, Bite by Bite

FD/TASTE  Washington Post Studio  DATE: 6/09/05  PHOTO:  Julia Ewan/TWP  CAPTION:  Foods to taste at the supermarket.
FD/TASTE Washington Post Studio DATE: 6/09/05 PHOTO: Julia Ewan/TWP CAPTION: Foods to taste at the supermarket. (By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
By M.J. McAteer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 15, 2005

They say that there is no such thing as a free lunch, but "they" must not be shopping at the right grocery stores. Otherwise, they would know that it is possible to eat lunch for nothing in this town (and in the 'burbs) if you don't mind an eclectic menu -- say, chicken pot stickers followed by salmon burgers, with a dried mango chaser. You also can't be shy about going back for seconds, because the portions are small -- sample-size, in fact.

Food demo-ing or in-store sampling is a sales technique that says, "Give customers a taste, and they will buy." Most supermarkets have the occasional sampling table or two, but a few area grocery stores, such as Costco and Whole Foods Markets, go all out. These two chains could hardly be more different, but both are believers in the benefits of offering freebies.

Club Demonstration Services Inc., the company that handles the food demonstrations for Costco, tracks product sales after a demo. Fully 89 percent of the time, sales increase, according to Tammie Allen, regional manager.

"The sale may not happen that day, but they come back for it," she says.

And customers like the practice:

The trade journal Supermarket Retail Marketing recently reported that 70 percent of respondents in a 1,000-person survey said they would shop at a store if they knew it offered product samples. Of that group, 86 percent also said they would be more likely to buy a new brand if they could try it first at the store.

On a recent busy Saturday at the Leesburg Costco, a dozen food demos were in full swing. Patricia Eala, who has been demo-ing for 10 years, had a setup near the produce section. "Golden pineapple" was her sample du jour .

"I'm a talker," said Eala cheerfully. Being a people person is one of the main qualifications for the part-time job of food demonstrator. As she chatted, Eala was in constant motion, stabbing generous pieces of pineapple with toothpicks, sticking them in paper holders and setting them out for the shoppers. She wore gloves, a plastic hair covering and an apron and has been "food safety certified" by Costco. Her supervisors are certified on food safety by the state of Virginia.

People parked and double-parked their oversize carts to snag a taste of Eala's pineapple. Some lingered to ask questions: "How do you tell it's ripe?"

"What's the carb count?"

Others studied the nutritional information provided for the product at every demo station.

Eala kept slicing. "My boys are gone. And the kids are so precious. Future buyers, you know," she said.

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