It was a Friday in mid-March when things started to unravel for Sara Simply Sampling. The firm, which runs in-store sampling for some of the biggest supermarket chains in Western Canada, was operating 21 wine tasting booths in 21 Save-on-Foods stores in British Columbia. But the samplers were calling head office, saying the stores were wild with shoppers bulk-buying dry goods, but few were stopping for a free drink.
At that time, Costco had just cancelled its renowned in-store food sampling program. Tim Murphy, Sara Simply’s vice president of sales and marketing, knew more cancellations were coming. In the grocery and liquor business, when a retailer does something, “the rest follow,” Murphy said.
And by the afternoon, on Friday, March 13, his contact at Save-on-Foods was calling: “Today will be the last day of demos,” Murphy recalled him saying. The 36-year-old, family-run firm hasn’t seen any revenue since.
“That was the heart stopper,” said Sara Simply vice-president Paul Murphy, Tim’s father.
The end of demos coincided with the end of olive bars, and salad bars, hot counters and buffets in grocery stores. They faded beneath a mess of panic-buying and pandemic-proofing in stores. Three months removed from that, it’s hard to picture going back to a time when you would touch a communal olive spoon or accept a paper cup of lactose-free yogurt from a stranger.
But the samplers, like the purveyors of salad bars, buffets and hot tables, are working on a comeback. The struggle for each is the same: How does self-serve survive in an era when no one wants to touch anything?
At McEwan Fine Foods, a chain of three boutique grocery stores in Toronto, the popular hot table buffet has returned, except now it’s behind glass. The buffet — sold by weight — was a big draw for the office workers downtown. But the pandemic forced McEwan, which also runs six restaurants, to stop the buffet and salad bar. It also ended its extensive olive bar, preferring to pre-package them instead.
The stores have since switched to offering their buffet items behind a sneeze shield, where customers point to what they want and a staff member fills a tray for them.
“What we’re envisioning down the line — and we’re not there yet — is really that white glove French service,” said Jessica Rodrigues, director of communications for McEwan Group. “In an ideal world, there’s a vaccine and it doesn’t have to be forever and we can go back to the way it was.”
For some major supermarket chains, it’s less clear when self-serve and sampling stations will return. In a statement this week, Metro Inc. said it had no plans to bring back sampling or salad bars or buffets. Loblaw Companies Ltd., the largest supermarket chain in Canada, said it was “still working out the details” and exploring options on how to revive sampling and self-service. For now, though, they’re off limits.
“It’s an interesting dilemma,” said Jean-Pierre Lacroix, president of Shikatani Lacroix, a firm that works on store design for Canadian supermarkets. “How do you sample products when consumers don’t want to touch them?”
How do you sample products when consumers don’t want to touch them?
Sampling in stores, Lacroix said, is actually a crucial marketing tool for food manufacturers, who can see huge spikes in sales whenever one of their products is sampled. And it is also a revenue generator for the supermarkets, who often charge fees for the demos, he said. Sara Simply, for instance, said one in-store sampling program can boost a product’s sales by up to 350 per cent in a weekend. The Retail Council of Canada confirmed that number “is not out of line” though it depends on the specific product.
“The power of trial in supermarkets is huge,” Lacroix said. “(Consumers are) easily influenced at the store level.”
But consumers are also habit-driven, and right now, the habit is to recoil from close contact and high-touch surfaces.
“They’re going to have to build trust in consumers that the trial is safe and sanitized properly,” Lacroix said. “It’s not going to be something where they flip the switch and tomorrow it’s going to be back to normal.”
Last week, the sampling world received reason to hope. CDS Canada, which runs the sampling at Costco stores, announced that it had begun tests in two locations. According to an update on the CDS website, those tests involved new procedures around social distancing, as well as piloting a new method that doesn’t involve eating or drinking at all: The talking food demo. “We explain product features and uses rather than serving samples,” CDS president Don Dohanyos wrote in an update to staff on June 17.
Tim Murphy, at Sara Simply, expects others will soon follow. The business, which his mother Gail founded in 1984, is expecting to restart sampling programs in Western Canada starting in early August.
Ahead of reopening, Murphy has been working on changing his booth design. He has surrounded the top half of the two-by-three-foot booth in acrylic sneeze shields. It looks like a little box office, with the sampler inside, and a slot in the front to pass samples through.
Typically, food manufacturers — or their marketing agencies — reach out to Sara Simply, looking to roll out a sample program for a new product. Each booth typically costs a manufacturer an average of $400 for 12 hours of sampling over two days, plus they’re required to pay for the food they use in the store. Sometimes the company has a vision for the sample. Other times, it is up to Sara Simply to develop a suitable recipe in its test kitchen. It has to be simple enough to be made in the booth, good enough to attract customers, but not too flashy.
“What we don’t want to do is bury their product in a neat recipe,” Tim Murphy said.
For example, the massive consumer goods manufacturer Unliever approached Sara Simply’s test kitchen before the pandemic, looking to sample a new cream cheese.
“They just didn’t want it simple,” Murphy said. So Sara Simply went with a tortilla wrap with the cream cheese, some pickle, a slice of ham, rolled up and sliced into pinwheels. That was a success, in part, because it didn’t just boost sales for the cream cheese. The cream cheese was the star, but the recipe also pushed store sales on tortillas, pickles and ham, Murphy said.
In August, if reopening goes to plan, the samples will be less elaborate, more “slice and dice,” Murphy said. “So things like granola bars, beverages, crackers, cheese, and simple stuff.”
Each sample will be individually packaged and sealed, with its own individually wrapped spork and a wet wipe. Think airline food, Murphy said. “Everything is in its own individual package.”
It will come through the slot in the plexiglass, in a cup with a lid, from a person wearing a shield and a mask and gloves, and that will likely be the closest customers will get to sampling food without touching it.