In-Store Product Sampling Is Back

Prepackaged items behind plexiglass shields may become the post-pandemic norm.

June 29, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—In-store sampling has long been a way for retailers to introduce customers to new products, but that practice was a casualty of COVID-19. Now, as retailers enhance safety practices and learn more about the virus, they are evaluating ways to bring sampling to the store.

Costco’s chief financial officer, Richard Galanti, announced during the company’s quarterly earnings call that the company will bring back its sampling program this summer. “It’s not going to be where you go and just pick up an open sample with your fingers,” Galanti said, according to GroceryDive.com.

In a limited number of stores, the warehouse giant is now offering prepackaged items kept behind plexiglass shields, served by people wearing masks and gloves, the Seattle Times reports.

As NACS Daily reported in May, COVID-19 has forced retailers and manufacturers to get creative with their sampling efforts, such as offering free add-ons with online orders to giving away samples to “drive-thru” customers. Costco’s recent announcement sent a message to the industry that sampling isn’t dead and may be effectively mobilized during the pandemic in the right circumstances with adequate safety precautions.

While Costco gears up sampling efforts, other grocers are taking a wait-and-see approach. After weeks in a pandemic, everyone is mindful of proper safety procedures, including the proper disposal of single-use cups, plates and other serving instruments; the safety of sampling workers and the importance of social distancing near sampling areas.

“I think things may turn back to normal sometime, but I think it’d be a year away,” said Arthur Ackles, vice president of merchandising and buying at Roche Bros., a supermarket chain based in Wellesley, Massachusetts. “I think you’re not going to see much going on from a sampling standpoint in general to be honest with you.”

Eliminating sampling may reduce sales on certain products for retailers, but it has devastated sampling companies, many of which have closed due to COVID-19, according to Jesse de Agustin, CEO of food sampling company EDS Strategy.

EDS Strategy’s current store demos involve handing out small prepackaged samples, talking to customers and distributing coupons. EDS workers all wear masks, gloves and caps. “Instead of making the oatmeal, we can give them a packet of the oatmeal that they can make at home and then offer a coupon to encourage a purchase of a full box,” said de Agustin.

Some retailers are dabbling in virtual demos, but de Agustin doesn't see the practice taking off. “We have seen virtual demos happening, but we think that’s sort of desperate because it’s really hard to translate that experience online,” he said.

Coronavirus Resources

NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.

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