Ask @RetailPhil: Free Sample? A Step-by-Step Guide to Sampling the Right Way


Sampling is a great way to build brand awareness and boost product sales but did you know it can also get your foot in the door of your dream retailer? Read on for a step-by-step guide to sampling your products, from coming up with a game plan and negotiating an agreement to customer satisfaction and guaranteeing your success.

If you’re trying to get into a new retailer, you want to sample in such a way that you drive a lot of consumer attention. You never want to go in asking, “Is it ok to sample in your store?” You should always go in with a plan.

Location, location, location!

The plan should include serious thought as to where you’ll be located. When you go through a store tour, think about a couple of locations. One being where you would like your product featured – for example, if you’re a brownie company, you’ll probably want your products in the cookie aisle. A good place to demo is near the aisle where your products will be found; that way, when a consumer tries your product, if they like it, they know where it is.

A common strategy is sampling somewhere near the front door, so that when shoppers come in, the first thing they see is you and your samples. However, the downside to that is shoppers tend to shop in a routine (along with having shopping lists). There’s a risk that they may not be ready to think about your product in their shopping experience. For example, if you’re a cracker company, the first thing a shopper usually does in a grocery store is shop for produce and meat before they even get to the dry goods. So by interrupting their routine, they may try you too early and by the time they get to the cracker aisle, they may have already forgotten about you.

Strike a deal.

Another thing you want to consider is what kind of deal you’re offering the retailer in order to incentivize them to carry your products. You must be able to give a retailer a clear profit story as part of your sell. Continuing with our previous example, If the average cracker company gives the retailer a 20% margin, you want to be able to offer them the same thing so that you’re in line with your competition.

You also want to make sure the price that you give the retailer is something you can maintain long term. If your cost on a cracker box is $1 and you want to give them a deal at $2, you have to make sure that that price is OK for every day. You can’t go back to them afterwards and say, “It was only $2 for the demo but now that you guys are carrying me, it’s $3.”

You should track your sales that day because it gives the store a proper forecast of what to expect once they’re carrying you. Tracking your success not only helps the store but shows you’re attuned to their needs and to your business as well.

Think short and long term.

You always want to think short and long term. In this scenario, the short term is, ‘Today I sample and I want the store to carry me full time’. The tomorrow is, if the store manager says, “You have a great sampling event but I just don’t want to carry you,” that’s fine. Because if you think long term, you’ll have given a coupon to every shopper that came in during your sampling event, giving them a discount off of their next box of crackers. After that, they’re going to come back to the same store and the same spot and start asking where they can find your crackers. That’s great for you because down the road, even if the store manager was uncooperative at first, he’s going to be faced with a ton of questions like, “Hey, I really liked those crackers, if I want more where can I buy them?” That will drive him to call you back and say, “I’ve had a change of heart, you can now be carried in my store.”

Hire the right people.

When you’re already in a retailer, it’s more about driving customer awareness and customer excitement – in those situations, you should plan differently. If it’s about customer education, you want to bring more education at the booth. If you’re a small business person, you’re doing it yourself, that’s fine but if you’re not, you want to make sure you hire people who know how to talk about the product. This applies in particular to brands who make specialized products (i.e. paleo) because you’ll spend more time talking than you will selling. And that’s OK because you want your consumers to leave excited. That’s a lot of making sure that you have the right people in store because they have to be able to sell and educate at the same time.

Partner up!

Another thing you want to consider is finding partners to do the sampling with. If you’re a cracker brand, look for a local cheese company to partner with. It’s what the industry calls ‘driving an occasion.’ Now it’s not just about, “Can I have crackers for today?” It’s, “I can have cheese and crackers, I can have jam and crackers, etc.” Partnering with other products makes store managers really happy as well because it just drives more business and ups the ATV.

Costco: The King of Sampling

Costco is the gold standard for sampling. The things you have to keep in mind is that they have Club Members – consumers pay to be there. These shoppers expect sampling. It’s also a very small environment. On a shelf there’s likely only three types of crackers: the leading brand, the second leading brand and a Kirkland brand. Essentially, the results you get with Costco will always be better than anywhere else because it’s a closed environment and there aren’t many options to choose from. Additionally, they have enough space that they can have all sorts of sampling people on at the same time. You can’t use your own staff at Costco, you must pay to use their professional samplers. If your aim is to educate your consumers, those guys are really really good at it. They know how to get shoppers to try a sample, buy one and all while explaining the benefits of that product to them.

When sampling in multiple locations, social media is key.

If you’re sampling in multiple stores, you want to think about how you’re going to pull off more than one demo at a time. It becomes a lot of work because location is key in all of those places. Usually the challenge is being able to get enough people to cover all those stores at the same time. You must also be prepared to provide materials, especially if you’re trying to excite and educate consumers; leave behind brochures or coupons for call to action. And be sure to think through your social media strategy! If you’re going to be in five stores at the same time, you should make sure you’re Instagram-ing, Facebook-ing and Tweeting. You should be doing that a few days ahead of time so as to generate some excitement as well as reinforce to the retailer that you’re a pretty cool brand and people love you.

By following this guide, you’ll be well on your way to turning sample-loving Sunday shoppers into loyal customers while keeping your product flying off the shelves!


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