Free Samples Are Returning to Some Grocery Stores With New Rules

Last year, Daniel Maloney could often be found working a sample table at specialty food markets around New York City. From his side of the table, Maloney would tell shoppers about Sol Cacao, the chocolate company he co-founded with his brothers Dominic and Nicholas. He would explain the brothers were brought up in Trinidad and Tobago, where their own great-grandparents once farmed cacao, before going on to found the Bronx’s first chocolate factory, and one of the few Black-owned chocolate businesses in the city. He would talk about the company’s commitment to ethically compensating farmers for cacao beans, as well as its support for environmental preservation and organic farming.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced grocery stores to set new limitations on handing out samples in stores, so shoppers today won’t learn those details that, when added up, make Sol Cacao’s $6 price tag seem fair. Without Maloney there to tell people about it, shoppers might not even know that Sol Cacao exists.

“When we give out samples and we get to talk to the customers, it validates the price,” Maloney says. “People got an opportunity to meet one of the owners, to get really intimate with the brand. When COVID-19 happened, that went out the door, and it was right around Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter, which is our key season.”

Following industry leaders like Costco and Whole Foods, who nixed in-store samples in March, the vast majority of grocery retailers have canceled sampling during the pandemic. That’s had an impact on brands of all sizes, but especially small and emerging brands, which rely heavily on sample stands to gain exposure and build a customer base. A free taste of chocolate can rouse shoppers from their shopping tunnel vision and help small brands attract attention if they can’t afford pricey product displays.

Rodrigo Salas, president of Molli Sauces, says samples are critical to differentiating his products from thousands of competitors on the shelf. They’re also important for educating people about the brand’s regional Mexican sauces, not only unfamiliar customers but also store employees, who are Molli’s best advocates during everyday business. Without sampling, business has suffered.

“We’ve lost about 30 percent of our sales since we started seeing the effects [of the pandemic] here in America,” he says. Like many business owners, he has pivoted to increase digital sales, but it’s not enough. “Online we’ve been able to recover about 5 percent of those sales,” Salas says. “We haven’t found a way to really compensate for the lack of in-store presence.”

Sam Miller is founder and CEO of Phoodie Marketing, a third-party company that helps brands arrange in-store demos. He explains brands use sampling to establish a “data story,” which is important to establishing a brand’s viability to retailers. Illustrating consumer demand and interest allows brands to win and maintain space on store shelves. That data is also crucial to gaining priority at distribution centers, where distributors decide which products get precious space on delivery trucks.

Chitra Agrawal, owner of Brooklyn Delhi, points out trade shows, which run on sample stands, are also on hold. Pre-COVID, those events were a cost-effective way for small brands without sales teams to meet directly with store buyers. “Not being able to sample at these types of events will definitely take a toll as well,” she says.

With grocery stores under pressure to keep shelves stocked, there’s little chance they’ll go easy on underperforming brands. “A lot of brands think they’re going to be cut some slack because of COVID. It doesn’t seem to be that way. The merchants are still doing their reviews, they’re still consolidating,” says Jesse de Agustin, founder and CEO of demo and retail sales firm EDS Strategy.

That’s clear to Salas too, who says, “I am worried. At the end of the day, you have to prove to retailers that your product is going to sell with or without in-store promotion. You have to prove it’s relevant. They don’t care if you’re sampling or not. They just want to see the sales and volume going up.”

To combat dropping sales, brands and retailers have devised a variety of pivots to maintain contact with consumers, including “dry” versions of in-store demos in which customers receive closed packages of food to enjoy at home, along with the usual brand spiel.

That’s what members will see at some Costco locations, where in-house marketing company Club Demonstration Services has outfitted the usual sample carts with plastic barriers. Just as Costco drove many retailers to pause samples in March, the megaretailer inspired excitement across the industry when it announced the return of samples in late May. A handful of other retailers have begun offering dry samples as well, and a few are even offering standard tastings.

A map of retailers, including grocery stores, shows stores across the country reintroducing demos in some form. According to de Agustin, EDS has had a lot of success with dry demos, comparing them to a QVC pitch in which sales rely more on quality presentations than samples. He argues the pandemic may raise the bar for demoers, ultimately improving standards across the industry.

But the dry format has its own challenges. “Brands either have to give away a full unit because it has to be a prepackaged sample, or they have to figure out a way to make a smaller sample size that they can do in bulk,” says Andrew Therrien, director of business development at demoing company Samplers Inc. “Often packaging is more expensive than the product itself,” he adds. That can be especially hard on smaller brands with limited budgets, but Miller wonders whether even Costco can make dry demos profitable in the COVID-19 era.

Samantha D’Amico, director of operations at Samplers Inc, also addresses how demos might play to an extremely anxious audience of harried grocery shoppers. “Our reps were never aggressive, but they were assertive. We’re training them to dial that back a little bit,” she says.Obviously they’re there to promote the product and sell, but in this environment you have to handle that more delicately than we did pre-COVID.”

Therrien explains the company has seen success with low-interaction alternatives like drive-thru samples, where someone distributes goody bags from a branded tent as shoppers enter a retailer’s parking lot. Meanwhile, Miller says a lot of brands are pushing coupons, as well as promotions to entice customers with lower prices. He has also seen some brands adding free products to grocery delivery orders, enabling them to reach customers who avoid the store altogether, but he adds that this method is limited to large brands with big budgets.

Before the pandemic, demoing could cost thousands of dollars, making it a big but potent investment for small brands. Therrien says COVID-19 has raised some of those costs, requiring brands to spring for outdoor tents and pay a premium for high-risk labor. The payoff could be bigger too, since customers may find a successful event more impactful, but it’s a risky maneuver.

With many consumers preferring to shop online, some smaller brands are giving up demos entirely and spending resources on digital marketing instead. Molli Sauces and Sol Cacao have both shifted more attention to social media in recent months: Salas has been streaming cooking demonstrations on Facebook Live to show customers how to use Molli products, while Maloney has been leading chocolate tastings through Instagram.

De Agustin believes this is a knee-jerk reaction that may hurt in the long run. Unless brands are prepared to go entirely online, he says, they should be careful about ignoring their retailers, which could cause them to lose regional accounts or cede shelf space.

But Agrawal suggests digital could be a way for smaller brands to overcome the many ways they’re disadvantaged compared to big brands. “There are just a lot of costs associated with selling your product at grocery stores. Going direct-to-consumer, you own all of the information on your customer base. That is so valuable,” she says, adding that there are extra advantages for international brands that may not be deemed “mainstream” by retail buyers.

Maloney believes digital engagement will help Sol Cacao make meaningful contact with consumers. “There’s a lot going on in the news, and I feel like people are looking to social media to see what else is going on in the world. Brands who are able to tell their story effectively during these times, those are going to be brands who people will remember,” he says.

It’s unlikely samples are going to return to normal before a widespread COVID-19 vaccine, and marketing companies are planning to closely track comfort for demos among consumers and retailers for the next year at least. But the pandemic may affect the industry much longer.

“I think it’s going to reshape everything. I think it’s going to make it harder for people to start a food business like this in a traditional way,” Salas says. Even as he predicts dire things for sampling in the future, though, Salas believes there’s opportunity for brands willing to get creative. “I think there’s going to be a lot of innovation, just like any revolution in the past. We can’t rely anymore on this tool, so we need to rethink the whole strategy, to find ways to get people to discover us outside of the store.”

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