Instore demos ‘are not going away’ but may look different in future, say sampling firms

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Multiple retailers have discontinued vendor sampling programs until further notice (Picture: Gettyimages/Noel-Hendrickson)
Multiple retailers have discontinued vendor sampling programs until further notice (Picture: Gettyimages/Noel-Hendrickson)

Related tags sampling demos Costco Kroger

Instore demos - a key tool for many emerging brands to encourage trial and raise awareness – were one of the first things to go when COVID-19 hit, with multiple retailers discontinuing them until further notice. However, Costco is planning a gradual return starting mid-June and some other retailers are thinking about how to restart safely.

In a May 21 post​ on its website, Club Demonstration Services (CDS), which handles sampling at Costco stores, noted that it was “narrowing in on the first phase of our return, in a limited number of locations, towards the end of June.”

The focus will be on “states where business restrictions have already eased, including restaurants being open for inside dining.”

A week later on Costco’s Q3 earnings call, CFO Richard Galanti added: “We are going to start doing some things in mid-June on a slow rollout basis in sampling. I can't tell you anymore but it's needless to say, not going to be where you go and just pick up an open sample with your fingers. But the sampling and both food and nonfood items are popular. And road shows as well.”

EDS Strategy: 'We are getting back into some stores in June'

Jesse DeAgustin, CEO at EDS Strategy​​​, which specializes in store product demonstrations of natural and organic foods with retailers from Wegmans and ShopRite to Central Markets and Sprouts, said: “It's good news.

“What is interesting about their ​[Costco's] new policy is that they are not ‘pre-cupping’ or putting out samples for people to take. This is something we never did at EDS Strategy since it is not food safe. Each sample is made for each customer.”

Asked what he was hearing from other stores now that things have calmed down a little, he said:  “We are getting back into some stores in June and during March we had a major US retailer reach out to us for a RFP to be their in store demo vendor, proof that demos are not going away.

“Also HMart reached out to us and is interested in EDS Strategy being their go to demo firm for a specific territory. Our current clients, and new brands are ready to get back in stores as well.

He added: “We've also had time to develop a different division of the company, our training division. Since we use our ‘Educate, Demonstrate, Sell’ demo approach to sell our clients' products at demos, we are packaging that system into online courses to license to specialty retailers to help train their front line associates. With other retailers closing stores, we think top retailers will really invest in affordable online sales training for their associates.”

Matthew Kubick​​founder and president at instore demo firm Local Demo Service​​, ​​added: "We have been cleared for sampling with a facemask at Idaho stores. Other than that, some stores are talking about letting us in for educational demos."

‘Food safety will be the #1 focus for demos going forward’

The one silver lining to emerge from COVID-19 will be a new emphasis on food safety and staff training for instore demos, claimed DeAgustin.

“Food safety will be the #1 focus for demos going forward, something that those large demo agencies with 1000 1099 / W9 independent contractors in their database can't control.”

Kroger, Whole Foods, Fresh Thyme continuing to temporarily suspend sampling

Whole Foods told FoodNavigator-USA that, “We don’t have any updates to share on sampling and demos at this time,​” while a Kroger spokesperson said: “As a precautionary measure, we are continuing to temporarily suspend sampling in our family of stores. Our food safety experts will continue to closely evaluate and adjust our policies accordingly.”

Amy Parker, VP marketing at Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, added: "We continue to follow the guidance of the CDC and local and regional public health authorities and do not plan to restart sampling in our stores at this time."

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