ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The seasoned shopper and her daughter have mastered the art of dining "a la cart." Hungry for lunch, the daughter says, "It's Friday. Let's go to Byerly's and eat in the aisles."
Pushing a grocery cart, they make a quick reconnaissance of the store to discover the day's "menu" -- so they can eat their meal in a logical progression. First, they have coleslaw; then, soup. The main course: Mexican pizza, two other varieties of pizza and a sample of a new barbecue sauce.
After palate-cleansing watermelon in the produce aisle, they try some new bread, then take a cup of coffee to go with the cookies being given away. Last stop: the ice cream aisle, to round up a Rondo for dessert.
At the end of the "free" lunch, the shopper writes out a check for $50 worth of groceries she's purchased while crisscrossing the store -- including the watermelon, barbecue sauce and Mexican pizza she and her daughter had sampled. "And I went in without a list," she says.
Free samples of groceries were a rarity a decade ago, but now they're so expected that customers have been known to complain to store managers if the pickings are slim or if the tastes aren't to their liking. So widespread is the free-food phenomenon that it has spawned an industry of demonstration service companies.
Saturdays used to be the main day for food sampling, but now Fridays offer prime grazing as well, and Thursdays and Sundays are gaining. Summer is the slow sampling season, as are the weeks just after the New Year, but for the next few months, a slew of pizza ovens and electric frying pans will be heating up to introduce new products promoted through these highly effective direct sales.
Betty McKenzie, who operates her own company in Buzzards Bay, Mass., and is the president of the National Association of Demonstration Companies, has watched her business triple over years. "Sixty-five percent of purchase decisions are made right in the grocery store," says Ms. McKenzie, who herself answers the association's 800 number, 338-NADC.
"Southern California is the hottest area for food sampling," she says, with as many as 1,500 demos per weekend. "Demonstrating is growing because there are so many new foods out there. Companies are putting their money into something that shows immediate results." Call it putting their money where the mouths are.
"Grocers like it because it creates excitement in their stores, and customers perceive that the stores are the ones being so generous. [Actually, demonstration costs are underwritten by food manufacturers, and sometimes by food brokers.] I really think customers appreciate a treat, but even more, today they FTC don't want to invest grocery dollars into an unknown product without tasting it first."
Bill Eggert, vice president of perishable products for Timmons-Sheehan Co., food brokers in Eden Prairie, Minn., says in-store giveaways can dramatically increase sales: "I've seen triple-digit increases. We find demoing to be extremely useful to expose consumers to a new product, or to reacquaint them with a product they haven't tried for a long time. It enhances or stimulates impulse purchases."
Lois Millett, president of the Grocer's Choice demonstration service, was a grocery store cashier and demonstrator for many years before starting her own company in 1987. "When I was demoing . . . I got to be friends with the customers, who actually make it such a nice job."
Ms. Millett, like her counterparts, hires people who she feels will be personable and knowledgeable. She asks them to buy and try an item before they urge others to sample it.
Though a potentially good demonstrator might be a former chef or home economist, she finds that homemakers, "who've had lots of experience making meals for families," fit the role well. "It's murder on the back and feet to stand for eight hours a day and be able to cook and talk at the same time," she says.
Pay to the demonstrator is low-end, starting at $5 an hour (sometimes $6 or more for complicated food and appliance demos). Sunday work sometimes pays better. "We see so much turnover. Sometimes, people want to earn just enough for Christmas or a vacation," Ms. Millett says.
Judi Koch, president of the A-Plus demonstration company, adds, "Demonstrators in this area [Minnesota and the Dakotas, where A-Plus does business] are the lowest-paid of anywhere in the U.S. Fees are set by marketing firms, based on what the market will bear. Here the going rate, paid to the demonstration company, is about $70 a day to provide a food sampler, whereas in Oregon the rate is $110, in Vermont $115 and New York $120."
A good demonstrator is worth plenty. Ms. Millett has seen a store move 200 cases of cottage cheese in a weekend -- up from a customary 10 -- when shoppers are tempted with a sample of cottage cheese salad. She adds, "I think higher sales often continue, because once people try a product and acquire a taste for it, they will continue to buy."
Sales, of course, are the ultimate objective of this edible advertising -- though freebies don't always guarantee that result. "Tortillas and burritos go well in some areas, but in other parts of town, shoppers won't try them. In a poorer neighborhood, they won't buy four bottles of spring water for $2.99," she says. Often, demonstrations are timed for typical paydays and the arrival of Social Security checks. "People will buy when they've got some dough," Ms. Millett says.