Don’t ask. Tell.
That was the best piece of advice I got before I started my shift as a grocery store sample lady.
“Say, ‘I have a Reuben sandwich for you!’ ” advised Denise LeClaire, a Lunds & Byerlys food expert. “Don’t say, ‘Do you want a sample?’ That gives them the chance to say no.”
I stood beside LeClaire at the Plymouth supermarket on a recent Friday, following her suggestions as we sliced sandwiches into eighths, then plopped the savory slivers into tiny cups to distribute to hungry shoppers.
I tried to echo her words and the tone of her voice (which managed to be friendly, encouraging and booming all at the same time), while she coached me: eye contact. Split-second timing. Product knowledge.
Turns out there’s a lot more to being a sales adviser (the technical name for sample lady) than sticking a tidbit on a toothpick.
I’ve had a fascination with sample ladies since my children, who are now adults, were riding in the grocery cart. I was working part time then, and during the endless winter months when I was home with preschoolers, sample day got us out of the house. I came to think of sample day as Mommy’s weekly trick-or-treating without the costumes, and with those gracious sample ladies providing the goodies.
I wanted to see if I had it in me — the geniality, the gift of gab that it takes to make it in the grocery soft sell. So I asked (OK, I begged) and was allowed to pull a single, unpaid shift as a sample lady.
A sampler is born
I arrived at the store in the required white, long-sleeved shirt, black pants and close-toed black shoes and was given a black apron, along with a name tag.
Kristi Ryan, events and demo manager for Lunds & Byerlys, spelled out the job requirements:
• No cellphones, gum chewing, beverages or tasting the samples allowed.
•Wear food-handling gloves and change them every time you scratch your nose or straighten your hair.
• Get to the point.
“When you’re onstage,” as Ryan called the sampling station, “you have 8 seconds to establish eye contact, greet the guest and make the offer. It used to be 30 seconds, but now it’s zip, zip, zip. If you don’t engage quickly, you’ll never get to the food.”
My biggest worry was how to handle a patron who savors the sample a little too much. But I was surprised to learn that it’s rare for shoppers to make nuisances of themselves. Should anyone overindulge, I was not to say a word.
Not even a dirty look?
“Oh, no. We never call them out,” Ryan said. “Let them have as many as they want. At some point, a guest making laps will feel more awkward than you do.”
Little tastes, big business
For shoppers, sampling is a pleasant way to make a mundane chore into a snackfest. But for grocery stores, much more is at stake.
“When you can get the customer to try the product, it’s a huge win in marketing,” said George John, a professor of marketing for the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.
In fact, research suggests that getting something for nothing, even a tiny taste, triggers a subconscious response in some shoppers.
“There’s a quid pro quo, a social pressure to reciprocate,”said John. “When someone describes the fine features of the sample, a sense of obligation kicks in. There’s some evidence in the data that people who don’t buy the featured product will boost their overall purchases. They won’t deliberately think, ‘I took three pieces of cheese, so I will buy more toilet paper,’ but they do.”
Plus, sampling is one of the few marketing techniques that no one objects to.
“Ads aggravate people, cutting coupons can create a sense of irritation,” he said. “The only thing people might not like about [getting a sample] is waiting in line to get theirs.”
And the try often leads to a buy.
But with sampling, the products are only part of the pitch. Equally crucial is the demeanor of the people who offer the toothpicked treats.
Lunds & Byerlys uses a combination of store employees and contractors as their sample ambassadors. In the Twin Cities, several companies provide trained sales staff, most of whom make between $15 and $18 an hour. It’s a part-time gig that appeals to mostly female retirees, stay-at-home parents and people looking to supplement their income.
I have to admit, it’s harder than it looks.
I was impressed by the way LeClaire consistently worked “Lunds & Byerlys” into her chatter, like a bestselling author constantly plugging a new book.
“That’s our Lunds & Byerlys Kobe corned beef, on special and so tender!” LeClaire said smoothly. “It’s in the display with our Lunds & Byerly’s Thousand Island dressing, it’s got the tang.”
She was also able to quickly and easily rattle off the list of ingredients in a sample and all of their attributes.
After stammering through a few efforts, I kept it simple: “Isn’t that pumpernickel good?” I managed to spit out.
No matter how welcoming I tried to be, it quickly became obvious that some shoppers didn’t care for a nosh, regardless of its attributes. They gave me wide berth and pointedly avoided eye contact. A few others put the little cup back when they spotted the shreds of sauerkraut.
“Don’t take it personally,” LeClaire whispered to me.
By the time I took off my apron at the end of my shift, my feet hurt, my nose was tingling from the scent of sauerkraut and I was all out of small talk. But I left with an even greater appreciation for all of the grocery store samples I’ve snarfed over the years, and the people who’ve politely offered them to me.
And there may be more where that came from.
The Carlson School’s John predicts that sampling will become a more valued part of the marketing strategy for grocery stores.
“It’s an old-fashioned technique, but it’s a differentiator for grocers desperately trying to get customers in the store,” he said. “Grazing is a fun part of the ambience. Amazon and the delivery services haven’t found a way to get in on this. So far, there are no drones dropping off little tastes of food.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.