Palate Pollsters Shape Future Foods

John Mall sits on a plastic chair inside a small cubicle and faces his interrogator.

On the table before him are a plastic foam cup filled with water, two more cups filled with cola drinks and a saltine cracker.

"What's the saltine for? Am I supposed to eat that?" asks the 37-year-old Dana Point man, sounding a bit wary.

April Newby, the woman in the peach miniskirt across from him, patiently explains that he only has to eat the cracker if he wants to, in between taste-testing the two cola drinks.

Like a connoisseur of colas, Mall takes a swallow from the soft drink identified only as No. 625, washes it down with water, then tries No. 915.

"Which one did you prefer?" Newby asks, her pencil poised.

"The water doesn't count, right?" Mall asks.

It's the kind of lukewarm response cola manufacturers don't show on those hyped-up taste-test commercials. Yet, candor is critical to soft-drink makers, who use the taste buds of Mall and hundreds of others across the country to decide whether a new cola's going to fizzle.

At the U.S. Testing Co., in a corner of the Mission Viejo Mall, shoppers are routinely rounded up to participate in such surveys. They're polled on all kinds of products and services--cereals, sodas, frozen foods, cookies, candy, facial tissues, garbage bags, paper towels, air fresheners.

"We study everything you can think of," says Jackie Weise, national field director for the Wheeling, Ill.-based company which operates 17 research centers in malls across the United States.

Clients hire U.S. Testing to determine if the public will buy whatever gizmo they're peddling, or to gauge how their product compares with that of a competitor's.

The tests can be critical or trivial in nature, from making sure the window won't shatter on gas barbecues to deciding the size of a cereal box. One recent survey, commissioned by the makers of the Trivial Pursuit board game, investigated which type of box--cardboard or plastic--should hold the cards containing the trivia questions.

Shoppers' responses can determine the amount of sweetener in a soft drink, the fizz in an antacid, the sugar in cereal, the bubbles in beer.

By setting up shop in a mall, U.S. Testing can handpick participants who fit the description of whatever group the client wants to survey.

"It's a way to reach all different types of people without going into neighborhoods and knocking on doors," Weise says.

Shopping malls would be inundated with market research companies wanting to take the public's pulse, but many malls don't want them around. Mall-bound research centers are less prevalent in Orange County than in San Diego and Los Angeles because exclusive malls such as South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa and Fashion Island in Newport Beach forbid any testing on the premises.

"It's difficult to get into malls. Leasing companies are reluctant to have the companies in there. They don't want shoppers to be bothered," says Kay Lavish, a partner of the Discovery Research Group in Irvine. "But they're still doing it all over the country."

Most market research companies operate the way Discovery does, by using a database of names picked at random from the phone book or referred by former survey participants and inviting people to their office.

U.S. Testing, meanwhile, relies on a recruiter to rope in shoppers as they pass by the store. And few can recruit better than Bill Kline.

"I con them," Kline jokes.

In fact, Kline probably gets more shoppers by illiciting sympathy.

"I saw him out there and he didn't look like he was having any luck," says Alan Schmiz, 26, of Dana Point, who looked like he strolled in from the beach in his neon shorts and flip-flops.

"He seemed tired, so I didn't want to say no to him," says Juliana Chan, an 18-year-old Trabuco Canyon resident taking a break from shopping.

People trust Kline, a grandfatherly figure in spectacles.

"I'm 73 years old," he says, "and most people feel I'm harmless.

"I can call the mothers 'mom' and the fathers 'dad.' And I teach the kids to do the high five."

Often, he has to assure shoppers he's not selling them anything before leading them by the arm into the center.

Once inside, the shoppers sit inside private cubicles to be tested.

"How long is this going to last?" asks Linda Jones, a 32-year-old Mission Viejo resident, casting a skeptical eye at her fidgety 3-year-old son, Brian.

"Ten minutes," says Newby, 19. She sets Brian up with a box of toys on the floor and serves Linda her soft drink.

"Which phrase describes your feelings about this product?" Newby asks, reading from a questionnaire.

"Somewhat dislike," says Jones, choosing from a list of prepared responses.

"What term describes the sweetness character?"

"Saccharine," says Jones, puckering her lips in a look of distaste.

"Its consistency?

"Thick and syrupy."

"How would you rate the aftertaste?"

"Unpleasant."

This goes on for several minutes, then Newby brings out two colas for a comparison test.

"I prefer the first one," Jones says. "It's real different."

Before mother and son leave, Newby hands them a potato chip clip and a round piece of rubber she identifies as a jar opener.

As tests go, this is an easy one for the interviewers. They've been called on to test much less appetizing products, such as a new liquid vitamin.

"It smelled horrible," Newby says, making a face.

"We also did an antacid--that was the grossest."

Shoppers were asked to sip from two antacids and judge them on taste alone.

"People weren't real thrilled," she says. At least one man refused.

Some participants got to taste-test beer and whiskey, but they could consume only enough to whet their whistles.

"We had shoppers lined up at the door for that test," says Tony Pointer, 20, a staff interviewer.

They've also polled shoppers about a new air freshener, asking not how it smelled, but how it looked.

"The company just wanted people to look at it," Newby says. "People weren't even allowed to smell it." Most worried about whether the mint green holder would match their living rooms.

Some shoppers agree to take the tests out of curiosity, Pointer says.

"You tell them it's a new product and it's not on the market and people want to see what it's all about."

The center also attracts participants with token gifts, such as pot holders and potato chip clips, even lottery tickets and dollar bills.

Still, many shoppers evade Kline, claiming they don't have the time, even though the tests take no more than 10 minutes.

"Everybody's in a hurry," says Claire Engler, field supervisor of the Mission Viejo center.

Recruiting is made even more difficult because shoppers must match the age and lifestyle specified by the client.

For the recent cola test, the soft-drink manufacturer wanted people who usually drink regular soft drinks to test an unidentified diet soda. During the weeklong survey, interviewers had to query 100 people who fell into specific age groups from 12 to 59.

Some tests involve a little extra effort on behalf of participants.

They've been asked to watch a commercial on a VCR or study a print ad, then answer questions about the product's appeal. They've received unmarked boxes of cereal or frozen entrees to take home, prepare, and share with their families.

The center has a fully stocked kitchen in back of the office where workers prepare food and beverages according to the manufacturer's strict guidelines. For a cola test, workers check the soft drinks every three hours to make sure they're served at the same temperature. Even so, a few shoppers will claim one drink is warmer than the other.

"They're all the same temperature, but people's minds play tricks on them," Newby says.

She finds the tests are a study in human behavior.

"People will say, 'I never drink that brand of soft drink.' Then we give it to them and they'll say it's delicious," Newby says.

Interviewers usually don't know what brand they're testing because most products arrive in unmarked containers, but they like it better when they're told the product's name. Newby has altered her eating habits based on test results.

"I've found some really good frozen dinners because of the tests," she says.

The staff won't find out the survey results until they see the product on the supermarket shelf.

"Hey, I saw that air freshener we tested in the store the other day. It's smaller than the version we tested," Pointer tells his co-workers.

Two years ago, the interviewers tested Simple Pleasures, a nonfat ice cream made with the new fat substitute Simplesse.

"We had people eating it on the way out. Everyone liked it," Pointer says. He wasn't surprised that the ice cream made it to market.

Pointer is less sure about the Trivial Pursuit container.

"I guess we won't know until the new Trivial Pursuit comes out what kind of box is in there."

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