Nabisco cookies! Try a chocolate chip cookie. Mini Chips Ahoy! Nilla Cinnamon Wafers! Low in fat and cholesterol! For sale today! Get your coupon and save. Try one today, they're very tasty."

The booming voice of John A. McIlwaine greets shoppers even before they enter the Safeway in Northeast Washington. His inviting call to try the cookies can be heard repeatedly, each time the sliding glass doors open.

McIlwaine is only one trouper in a growing army of what are known as in-store demonstrators -- modern day peddlers who push pizza instead of trinkets, or bonbons and ice cream in place of Auntie Mae's Marvelous Cold Remedy.

Standing just inside the store's entrance next to a collapsible card table adorned with a plastic blue-checkered tablecloth, McIlwaine -- wearing oversized yellow plastic gloves -- carefully places the cookies on paper napkins and urges customers to take a sample.

"They're tasty, you'll like them I'm sure," he tells one shopper. "You bake?" he asks another. "Well, you've got to try these as the crust for an apple pie," he says, handing her a cinnamon vanilla wafer. "It's the best yet."

Traveling from store to store and touting products for one manufacturer, then another, hospitable hawkers such as McIlwaine are playing an increasingly important role in promoting products.

With thousands of new items being introduced each year, more and more manufacturers and retailers are turning to demonstrators in hopes of capturing shoppers' attention where it counts the most -- in the store.

"We try to do {demonstrations} with new products as often as we can," says Bob Antenucci, area sales manager for Kraft General Food's frozen products. "You can advertise a product and people can think it looks pretty good but the real test is when they try it... . If you can get the consumer to taste something, then they buy it."

"Five years ago, we did no store demonstrations," says Tony Street, director of grocery purchasing for Giant Food. "Today, there is at least one every other week" in at least one-quarter of the chain's stores. Just where varies week to week.

Consumer tastings have become big business -- "a minimum $100 million business, if not more," says Wayne LoCurto, president of ActMedia Inc. in Darien, Conn., the nation's largest in-store marketing firm. "In-store samplings and demonstrations ... are the fastest growing part of our firm," LoCurto says. "In the past three years, it has increased sevenfold."

In the Washington area alone, four in-store demonstration companies have been created in the past decade. Today, each of these companies sends out as many as 100 demonstrators to stores between Wilmington, Del., and Richmond every weekend, when shopping is heaviest. They go to supermarkets, drug stores, discount chains, warehouse clubs, malls -- anywhere shoppers can be found.

"I've sold everything from soup to nuts, literally, and candy and apples in between," says the 72-year-old McIlwaine, one of 250 demonstrators working for VMH Marketing of Laurel. "It's the gift of gab that sells a lot of food -- not so much telling people to try it as much as attracting people's attention," says McIlwaine, a retired barber who became a demonstrator to remain active and stay "out with the people."

Like most other testers, McIlwaine works part-time, averaging about three to four days a week (fall and spring are the busiest seasons) and gets paid by the hour. Fees for demonstrators range from $7 to $12, depending on the agency and the product being demonstrated. "I wish I got paid by how much I sold," McIlwaine notes. "I'd be rich! ... If I can catch your ear, I can catch your heart and pocketbook as well."

"Hi there. How are you? I've got something really delicious in this pot, something wonderful for you to try. It's Smith Pig Pork Barbecue."

Andrea Goldberg lifts a big chunk of the barbecued meat from the crock pot she is tending in middle of the Price Club in Gaithersburg. She calls out to every shopper who passes and chatters nonstop as she tries to lure them to her table, which is covered with a plastic red-checkered cloth and aluminum foil trays made to look like silver platters.

"I always think of demonstrators as the modern day version of the old fishmonger in the street," says Sandi Cohn, president of the National Association of Demonstration Companies, a group formed six years ago "to improve and stimulate the acceptance, performance, reputation and use of in-store demonstrations."

"The fishmonger cried 'Fish for sale' in the street. People heard him and went down in the street and bought fish that day. If we're in a store and selling a product, and 25 other brands are in the bin, people will buy the one we're sampling," Cohn says.

Demonstrators have been around for years, but today, food industry officials say they are are being used more frequently -- and differently. "It used to be a little housewife who perhaps would get a friend and would demonstrate on weekends," says Cohn. "Now, it's become much more professional."

As Philip Niedermair, vice president of the Acorn Group of Silver Spring, notes, until recently "nobody had tablecloths. You just saw blank tables." What's more, the demonstrators knew very little about the product they were promoting. Now, Niedermair says, most demonstrators are professionally trained and are filled with facts to answer the questions asked most frequently -- usually how much fat, cholesterol, sodium and sugar a product contains.

In the process, there are hundreds of workers who are making part-time and full-time careers out of demonstrations. Goldberg decided to become a demonstrator when she moved to Washington four years ago. Now the 44-year-old is a regular demonstrator for HV Services Inc. of Odenton. "I would demo anything, no matter what it is. I like it better than going to the movies or even going out to eat. It excites me when people put a product in their cart that they had no intention of buying. But I sound so good and convincing they had to buy it."

A young couple stops and samples. "It's great stuff," says the man, who promptly walks to the freezer case nearby to get a container. "Enjoy it," replies Goldberg, who quickly turns her attention to another customer who is drinking a Coke as he passes by. "I see you've got some soda. You've got to have some Smitty Pig Pork Barbecue to go with it."

To Goldberg and other demonstrators, pitching pizzas, dishing out drinks and tendering tidbits is much like a game. The goal: to sell out. "It's a challenge but I love it," says Goldberg, who like most demonstrators notes that one of her favorite foods to promote is pizza made in the store. The only problem, she notes, is that store chefs frequently can't keep up with the sales pitch. "There was one girl who couldn't make as many pizzas as I was selling. She actually broke down and cried," Goldberg recalls.

"Many times a demonstration can increase sales 400 percent," says Cohn, adding that sales increases continue even after the demonstration ends. "People who don't or can't purchase on the spot will remember the item they tried and will come back the next week and pick up that product. They will remember it for many weeks, and it will become a product they will like to use."

Take kiwi fruit, she says. "Nobody knew what kiwi fruit was -- what was in that funny brown fuzzy skin. But when they started to do demos, their sales increased 800 percent," and they have been a popular produce product ever since.

"Hi, ladies, come on over; I've got something good. We're trying Dynatrim today. You can blend it into a nice-tasting, thick drink or leave it in the blender a little bit longer. Then, it turns thick and makes a great mousse dessert. Just pop it into the freezer."

Romie Sterling turns on her blender and whips up a new batch of Dynatrim, hoping to catch shoppers as they enter the large discount drugstore F&M Distributors in Falls Church.

Not all products are conducive to demonstrations, as Sterling, an employee of Hutch Marketing Inc. of College Park, is the first to note. "I can't think of anything worse than promoting diet food. It's hard to approach people, and it's not for me to say they should lose weight."

A plump woman nears Sterling's table, which is covered with a plastic brown-flowered cloth and cans of Dynatrim. "I'd like you to stop by and have a little taste," Sterling says. "This has a better taste, is thicker and has more fiber than its competitor; buy it today and you get a dollar-off coupon."

Another shopper -- a skinny redhead -- hears her offer. "You say I'm fat?" she asks. "No," Sterling immediately replies, shaking her head. "Then I don't need it," the customer responds and walks off.

Sterling says she usually sells out of the products she promotes, but in the case of Dynatrim, she is not very optimistic, especially considering only a few shoppers are dribbling into the store this Sunday afternoon. "I'm not counting on selling very much unless a miracle comes through. It's a slow day and a hard product to get people to try."

Dozens of other products are far easier to sell. "You can sell pizza and cookies because they attract everyone and they satisfy everyone," Sterling says. In promoting a product, Sterling says, the key words to use are "microwaveable, freshly made, natural ingredients, fast, convenient, excellent taste, quality or competitive. Usually if one or two of those words are used in talking about a product, and if the demonstrator is enthusiastic, you can create a sale."

Sterling has been a demonstrator for seven years, initially seeking the job as temporary position while her children were in school. Over the years, Sterling has noted that shoppers have become more picky in what they eat and considerably more attentive to labels. "More people care and read what's on the label," she says. For a while, she says, everyone wanted to know how much cholesterol a product contained. Now, she says, "the cholesterol scare seems to be quieting down."

But, Sterling adds, she suspects a new concern will soon be heard, based on a comment two shoppers made two weeks ago. "I was demo-ing sausage when two men passed by and grimaced. 'We don't eat animals,' they told me," Sterling recalls.

Nasty comments happen infrequently, but when they do, Sterling says, "you just have to laugh -- and move on to the next customer."

"Hello," says Sterling to a new customer. "I'd like you to stop by and have a little taste. We're doing Dynatrim ... ."