I had the opportunity to visit an HEB Central market store while attending the FMI convention in Dallas in May. I had been in a number of their stores over the years and have always been impressed with the strength of their merchandising, the fantastic product presentation and the overall power of the format. However, it had been over four years since my last visit, and the store near the airport in Dallas was smaller, less spectacular and had a much stronger focus on its sit down prepared foods offering than the others I had visited. However, the thing that impressed me the most about this store was the numerous opportunities for product sampling throughout the store. This visit was on an early Thursday afternoon and the amount of sampling throughout the store appeared to be a standard offering at the store.
The sampling stations varied from the standard, hard plastic produce sampling stand found in many supermarkets around the country, to small portable tables with black tablecloths on them offering “help yourself” samples of various unique snack and drink offerings, to more elaborate manned stations offering a number of products each. The “help yourself” stations were well done and gave customers the chance to try something new and help themselves to some free food.
However, it was the manned stations, especially the permanent cooking area with the sign “Epicuriosity” between the produce and seafood departments that were the most impressive. Here an extremely friendly woman offered to create a small paper plate of food for me from her three creations of the day, which included two hot entrées and a salad offering. She took the time to tell me about the various dishes and then offered me a chance to sample three different wines which she was featuring for the day. While I enjoyed the food and wine, it was the friendliness of the cook that really impressed me. She really did not try to sell me anything, but wanted to have me try some new tastes, to educate me a little about her preparation techniques and to make sure that I had a nice day. Some may say that her high level of service is attributable to good old Texas Hospitality. However, there are really friendly people in every nook and cranny of this country and the world, and it is clear that strong hiring disciplines, good training and a management that is not afraid to empower and engage their employees is the real reason for my great experience.
Why should a store invest products, space and well trained labor in providing product sampling opportunities to their customers? First, there is the allure of “free food.” The act of walking through a supermarket and seeing food everywhere you turn never fails to make people hungry. A free sample of food feeds our primal instincts and satisfies a small amount of that craving. However, this is the most basic of reasons for sampling. The second and more important reason is the “epicuriosity” factor. In general, people enjoy learning and trying new things and appreciate opportunities to “test drive” a new food before investing their money in the purchase. Being able to have a risk free way to try a Pomegranate juice, or a new type of grilled fish, or an imported cheese made from goat’s milk provides customers a way to stretch themselves and their pallet. Maybe they will buy it for themselves, or share with friends at an upcoming party, or serve it as a treat for their spouse or kids. In any event, they will have walked away from the store knowing a little more about food and with something to talk about when they get home.
Finally, the most important benefit to come from a well executed sampling program is the opportunity for customer engagement and brand building. The “manned” sampling stations provide the opportunity to put an expert, friendly face on the store and to make a strong connection with customers. HEB uses these “food experts” to welcome customers to the store, chat with them about their day and the food choices and finally to obtain personal and specific feedback on their challenges, needs and impressions of the store. In most of today’s supermarkets there are limited opportunities to really engage the customer. The days of the knowledgeable produce manager that helps you choose a melon that is just ripe enough to eat for dinner tonight, or the butcher at the service meat counter to help you select an affordable cut of beef that will taste delicious after 10 minutes on your grill are long gone. However, one or two food “experts” to introduce customers to new products and to provide assistance and suggestions when they are looking for something special separates these Central Market stores from their competition and builds a level of customer loyalty that is immeasurable.
I have recently read three articles on how the Millennial generation (a group that is larger than the baby boomers and will dominate shopping patterns for the next 30-40 years) is different from those who have preceded them and how stores will need to adapt their offering or fall behind those who do. The common theme of all of these articles is that Millennials are not just looking for good service, pricing and variety; but they are also making their shopping choices based on the “experience” offered by the retailer. They are extremely comfortable and savvy about using computers and mobile devices for shopping. However, they are attracted to retailers that provide them with an experience that they enjoy. It is not easy to translate the Apple Store (the retail gold standard for Millenials) into a supermarket format. However, stores that provide customers with experts who can demonstrate cooking and preparation options and techniques; staff interactions that are friendly, knowledgeable and welcoming; and staff and signs that provide knowledge about the unique foods in the store that the customers can use to impress their friends, will create an experience that will appeal to this generation.
There are many retailers that understand the value of a good sampling program. However, the HEB Central Market format is one of the best.