Merchant Innovation

Are In-Store Demos Worth It Anymore?

As eCommerce retailers continue to siphon off sales from their in-store counterparts, brick-and-mortar merchants across the country have tried to come up with a way to attract customers back through their doors. At the same time that high-tech solutions — such as location-based beacon marketing and mobile loyalty rewards programs — are disrupting the industry, some merchants and vendors are questioning whether old-fashioned in-store demos are worth the effort they require.

In a column for Frozen & Refrigerated Buyer, a series of anonymous retail executives openly questioned whether in-store demos are really exciting and engaging enough to do what they need them to do: Get customers out of their houses and back in physical stores.

"The current programs that the vendor community uses are ‘Mabel with a table,’” an unnamed executive told F&R Buyer. “They lack pizzazz sufficient to justify the spend and/or deliver the anticipated results. We are looking at sourcing these out and taking them to a new level."

Does this mean that retail storefronts would be better off without wasting time and resources on in-store demos? A 2011 study published in the British Food Journal found that demo stations in retail grocery stores give samples out to about 75 percent of all customers, and sample stands with long lines are more likely to persuade other customers to try out the product, too.

From a sampling-only standpoint, in-store demos seem to have some value in converting customers who have already made it through the doors. That prompted another unnamed executive to tell F&R Buyer that retailers shouldn’t turn their backs on a balanced in-store demo policy.

"There is always a need for balance of trade and demo monies,” the executive said. “There’s no doubt that a strong ad with display will normally get more trial for a new item than demos. But there is need for some theater in the store and I have seen some brands fail because they did not allocate at least some funding to demo. Again, it’s balance."

As long as the costs aren’t too severe, retailers don’t really have the luxury to shoot down any ideas that help attract customers to even a small degree. However, this doesn’t mean that the vendors who put on these demos are ready and willing to do whatever it takes to increase in-store traffic if they can just as easily move their products through online channels instead. This has given rise to a divide in the in-store demo debate, and one vendor told F&R Buyer that the incentive to conduct a demo doesn’t always align for his company.

"Demos are very expensive and are done for the retailer’s benefit,” the anonymous vendor said. “You have one day, four to six hours, inexperienced demo people, and the demo could be scheduled during the week — not a heavily shopped day. We have for 30 years given them our best shot and it is a losing way to promote. A TPR, or electronic coupon which can be good from two to four weeks, is far more effective and the way the shopper buys today. We refuse to do demos, and just turned down an account because the buyer wanted $6,000 worth of demos and a demo plan in place."

Even if retailers are on their own when it comes to in-store demos, giving up on them only takes one more tool out of their arsenal when competing against online brands. Newer and more engaging approaches to the bland taste-test format are more than overdue if retailers are still dependent on in-store demos to drive foot traffic, but it’ll take a lot of work to get there without vendor cooperation.

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