When a customer gets about halfway through the Trader Joe's grocery in Oak Park, Ill., she probably makes a pit stop at the sample station, where a friendly staffer has prepared a simple recipe and is answering shopper questions. Is this marketing? Of course, but it's also education, and customers love it.
"Trader Joe's calls the demo station a place of 'infotainment,'" explains Kordell Norton, a sales consultant and author, adding that Trader Joe's employees are empowered to provide samples of a product at the demo station even when that product is not officially on the program. "And their employees are able to provide all the information the customers are looking for."
Teaching customers about products, cooking and nutrition is certainly not a new marketing tactic, but today's grocery retailer is doing it more creatively than ever and employing the latest technologies.
"Today's consumer is more informed and more discerning about their spending," says Don Wright, senior vice president of business development for Wright Global Graphics, which recently launched the RetailLive app for educating consumers. "Advertising is still highly effective, but consumers today expect to be able to access more information."
Wright Global Graphics
WINE, CHEESE AND SALES
The traditional in-store education format of offering food samples is certainly thriving, but many grocery retailers have upped their game in this area, offering wine tasting "events," cooking classes and celebrity chef appearances.
Take Giant Eagle Market District, a chain of a dozen high-end grocery stores in Ohio and Pennsylvania. In December alone, customers at one of the retailer's Pittsburgh locations rubbed shoulders with famed farm-to-table chef Mario Batali; customers in Strongsville, Ohio, learned how to make homemade ice cream, sorbet, and granita; and customers in many locations toured the aisles with a dietitian who showed them which items fit into a gluten-free diet. And on New Year's Eve, Strongsville customers enjoyed tapas and champagne at the grocery
"We went to Giant Eagle on a Friday night and they said, 'Are you here for the wine experience?'" Norton remembers. "They said for $5 you get a passport, and you and your date walk around the store tasting various cheeses and wines. In the wine department they had a guy on a stool playing the guitar and singing folk songs. A date at the grocery store to learn about new wines? Really?"
What seems like a date to customers is a powerful marketing tool for the retailer. Each tasting station adds to the customers' product knowledge, and the entire enterprise puts people in the mood to buy.
Many grocery retailers have improved on traditional tastings by offering cooking classes. For example, the Aprons Cooking School at Publix, which has 1,096 locations across the Southeast, offers sophisticated cooking classes at nine Florida locations. Recent examples include a course on California Cabernets in Orlando, a class on basic knife skills in Jacksonville, and a Tour of Europe class in Sarasota.
"The Publix Aprons program really adds value," says Matt DePratter, vice president of digital shopper marketing at marketing agency Catapult. "It provides solutions on how to make a nice meal, and I know when I go to Publix I can get all the ingredients and the wine that goes with it."
And that's the point–the customers learn something, indeed, but they also go home with of all the ingredients and wine.
And there's another benefit to this kind of education: good word of mouth.
"I think selling more products is only half the equation," Norton says. "They want something that will engage customers and make them say, 'Are you kidding me? I need to bring my friends here.'"
In-store education also taps into the desire of many customers to eat more healthfully. For example, more than 10,000 retail locations use Vestcom's healthyAisles program, which uses the company's databases of nutritional and wellness information for more than 200,000 products to create shelf tags, shelf strips, mobile apps and other media with nutritional information about the products. The program, based on guidance from the FDA, USDA, and nutrition and dietary organizations, describes the retailer's products as "low saturated fat," "organic," "gluten-free," etc.
"There's definitely increased demand from consumers for this kind of information," says Monica Amburn, senior director of health and wellness for Vestcom. "They want help understanding what products they should buy. We're not telling them why they should eat a particular food; we just help them find what they're looking for."
Amburn adds that many retailers take advantage of events, such as American Heart Month, to pump up the nutrition education in their stores. These educational efforts help customers choose heart-healthy products and the like and also show them that the store cares about their well-being.
"These elements help the retailer show a deeper level of commitment," Amburn says. "It provides some basic education to shoppers that's not too clinical and in layman's terms."
Many stores also employ dietitians to educate consumers about health topics. Iowa-based Hy-Vee, for example, employs registered dietitians in many of its 230 locations across the Midwest. These trained individuals provide free tours of the store to customers to teach them how to read labels and find foods that fit their dietary needs. Topics can include diets suitable for diabetics, people with allergies, athletes and many others.
Hy-Vee dietitians also lead healthy cooking classes, wellness workshops and a 10-week weight loss program. They even offer basic health screenings that cover blood pressure, cholesterol levels and body fat percentage.
"It's great when retail chains have dietitians available who can conduct product and cooking demos that are more related to health and wellness," Amburn says. "When you can demo products and show people that this is better for you and tastes good, too, that's really appealing."
As with other aspects of retailing, in-store education is also going digital. There's simply no denying the power of the digital world to affect shopping behavior.
"We're closely watching what retailers are going to do to stand out in the digital crowd," DePratter says, noting that with Amazon and other traditionally digital retailers invading the grocery space, it's only natural that brick-and-mortar grocers are fighting back on Amazon's turf. "We're seeing retailers using digital tools to set them apart."
Many retailers are deploying educational apps. Consider the CVS Drug Interaction Checker, which lets customers make sure their over-the-counter purchases are not going to negatively interact with their prescription drugs. Another educational app is the Whole Foods Market Recipe App, which lets shoppers find recipes that are based on their special dietary needs or that match with food items they already have on hand.
"The message I give our clients is that the mobile area is a great way to reach consumers when they have needs you want to fill," DePratter says. "Because consumers are increasingly turning to apps to solve problems."
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Not all in-store education works well, of course. Experts say the programs that work well vary in substance and structure, but have some important characteristics in common:
1. Sincerity. One key characteristic of a good educational program is sincerity, DePratter says: "We are all well aware that we are being actively marketed to, so retailers need to be honest with their message. They need show that they're solving a need."
As a counter-example, DePratter says a new liquor retailer in Minneapolis advertised that its employees were wine experts and could educate customers and help them make wise choices. "It turned out their advice was just a blatant shill for their own branded products," he says.
2. Brevity. A good program, whether it's an in-person cooking demonstration or a smartphone app, is brief enough that it doesn't bore customers. "A well designed [educational program] starts simply and allows the consumer the choice to dig deeper," Wright says. "When in doubt, we suggest that you adopt a 'less is more' philosophy. Keep the reading requirement to a minimum, emphasize good graphics or short informational videos to take the consumer to the primary message quickly."
3. Frequency. Like all marketing, an educational program shouldn't be a one-off event. Effective programs are tied into other elements, such as shelf tags, advertising, websites, etc. "For example, a lot of dietitians promote the idea of weight maintenance over the holidays," Amburn notes. "You could include information on this topic in some of your advertising and on your website. You could also write about it in a blog, along with some recipes. Then have a display in your store, or a small section in your fresh department, about the idea. This is all about creating several touchpoints that all hit on the same theme."
4. Ease of access. Good programs are inviting and easy to use. In-person events, such as cooking classes, should be well promoted and scheduled to accommodate busy schedules. And educational efforts that contain a lot of information should be set up so that consumers can get to the point quickly. "Consumers become overwhelmed when the information they receive at retail requires too much effort to access," Wright says.
5. Creativity. Perhaps the most important characteristic of a good program is that it's not boring. Customers can easily find nutrition information, recipes and wine pairings on a thousand different websites, but if they find that information in your store or on your app, you win. Capturing the attention of your customers requires creativity. Norton cites Jungle Jim's International Market, a 200,000-square-foot grocery store with locations in Cincinnati and Fairfield, Ohio, as a great example of a retailer that engages customers. Jungle Jim's features cooking classes, private cooking lessons, an entire department for demos and more. "When you walk in the store there's a sign advertising their guided tours of the store, which customers pay for!" Norton says. "When you provide that kind of entertainment mixed with education, the real hallmark is when customers are willing to pay for it."
Educating customers, either through in-store demos, smartphone apps, cooking classes or other events, is a powerful way to create informed customers and increase loyalty.
"Many in-store innovations for food brands are focused on addressing shopper needs while also meeting retailer objectives," says Tim Nelson, president of ad agency Tris3ct. "By developing solution-based ideas, marketers can score with both constituents."