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SPOON-FED MARKETING : In-store food demonstrations entice consumers with a taste of new products--and give manufacturers feedback on what people really like.

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

The battle for grocery dollars has moved directly into the mouths of shoppers at California’s 3,500 supermarkets. Manufacturers and trade groups are spending millions of dollars on free food and drink samples, coupons and other in-store discounts because it is an immediate and proven way to boost sales and introduce new products.

“The people in that store are the exact people we want to reach,” said Jerry Beckerman, president of Nutcrackers Food Products, a new Los Angeles cracker company.

Beckerman recently sat in on a training session where a squad of product demonstrators-to-be were studying the merits of his crackers and other companies’ cheese and bran flakes. “When you are in the store with your product, you are getting much more impact for your advertising dollar,” said Beckerman, who formerly worked for Lawry’s Foods.

Food manufacturers such as Beckerman spend $100 to $200 a day to put a demonstrator in a store. The demonstrations are usually scheduled to hit peak shopping days--Thursday through Sunday, although some begin on Wednesday afternoon.

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Industry experts say demonstrations are growing in popularity because they can boost sales 5 to 10 times above normal and result in a 10% to 15% long-term residual increase. Most shoppers approached to taste a sausage or a cracker probably believe that the demonstrators are there only to give away free food and discount coupons.

Grocers Profit

In fact, they are paid about $40 a day to conduct serious market research and file detailed reports. Manufacturers want to know exactly how much product was given away, what people said about it and how many boxes or bags the store sold that day. Demonstration companies mainly hire students, housewives and retirees for the job.

Demonstrations also produce a profit for grocers because most stores charge a daily fee of $25 or more for permitting demonstrators to set up a table.

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“Demo agencies offer stores a growing, profitable vehicle to increase sales,” said Sandy Totin, demo coordinator for the Boys Market chain. “You can really see the sales go up.”

In recent months, Southern California shoppers have been treated to new brands of nutty crackers, yogurt, soup stock, a Cajun-style meat marinade and fruit-flavored bran flakes. One joint promotion featured tiny ice cream sundaes using Jerseymaid ice cream and Hershey’s chocolate syrup.

“The demo business is growing dramatically,” said Karen Clericuzio, president of Demos Unlimited in Agoura. Clericuzio, who started out as a demonstrator several years ago, now employs 1,500 demonstrators and 30 field supervisors. On a recent weekend, Demos Unlimited sent a record 700 demonstrators into stores.

“In-store sampling was first aimed at acquainting the consumer with new products,” Clericuzio said. “Now, it gets the product moving off the shelves.”

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Clericuzio said a recent survey conducted by a supermarket trade magazine revealed that 88% of grocery store executives polled said they would like to see more demonstrations in their stores, up from 79% in 1986.

“Southern California is the most competitive supermarket area in the country,” said Melissa Russell, president of In-Store Demos. Her Los Angeles firm takes a different approach to the demo business by hiring college students with an interest in sales and marketing.

‘Very, Very Beneficial’

“We train them to be sales representatives, not just a body standing there,” said Russell, who pays her employees about $6 an hour, plus mileage and bonuses based on product sales.

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Food industry brokers, whose job is to battle for shelf space for the products they represent, said manufacturers are definitely spending more advertising dollars on in-store demonstrations, although dollar figures are difficult to find.

“Manufacturers and brokers believe in-store demos are very, very beneficial,” said Kim Fernandez, sales and marketing coordinator for MBA Marketing, a Culver City food brokerage which distributes natural foods.

Providing free samples is a sure way to encourage a shopper to try a new brand or a new food.

“Tofu is a good example,” said Fernandez, referring to the protein-rich soybean curd. “The average consumer does not expect tofu to be a delicious thing until they taste it.”

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Mrs. Gooch’s Natural Food Markets go a step further than most chains when it comes to in-store demonstrations. The Sherman Oaks-based company has 26 people working for its in-store demonstration department.

“Our in-house demo department serves as a resource for our customers,” said Carolyn Johnson, food projects director for Mrs. Gooch’s. “Customers come to rely on them for cooking and nutritional advice.”

Manufacturers and food brokers are not the only ones enthusiastic about in-store demonstrations. Commodity groups including the California Milk Advisory Board are turning away from traditional promotions to in-store demonstrations.

A Few ‘Horror’ Tales

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“It is the most artful form of advertising,” said Adri Boudewyn, spokesman for the advisory board in South San Francisco.

Boudewyn said the dairy industry has seen a strong sales response to its in-store demos. Because of that, the board has all but stopped putting posters or printed material in stores.

Most shoppers have occasionally encountered an inept demonstrator, but those working in the food business love to swap horror stories.

Fernandez remembers a woman who pronounced brie cheese bry instead of bree. Then she told shoppers that the rich, creamy cheese was “low in fat” and managed to slice her finger with the cheese knife.

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Nina Segovia, vice president of In-Store demos, has another favorite horror story. She was working in the marketing department for Zacky Farms chicken and periodically went into the stores posing as a shopper to check up on the demonstrators.

Segovia found her demonstrator frying chicken wings. She wheeled her shopping cart past the table several times. When the woman failed to say hello or offer her a sample, Segovia finally walked over and stood in front of the demo table.

“I asked her what brand of chicken she was frying,” recalled Segovia. “She said she didn’t know, but reached down and dug around in the trash can to find a Zacky Farms label. ‘This brand,’ she told me.’ ”


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