Hearth & Home November 2015

Held at Regions Field in Birmingham, Alabama, ABSCO’s “Big Green Eggs in the ’Ham” promotion attracted 1,200 attendees to sample the cooking of 50 cooking teams.

The Power of Promotions

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Do promotions, demos and sampling events still work?

A picture might be worth a thousand words, but a taste could be worth thousands of dollars in grill sales. At least that’s the rationale behind in-store demonstrations, promotions and events. But as consumers increasingly use the Internet to research grills and grilling techniques, some specialty barbecue retailers are beginning to question whether demos and other promotional events are still effective, or even necessary.

One such retailer is Kerry Emberson. The co-owner of Barbecue & Fireplace Centre in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, Canada, believes demos and events no longer serve their purpose.

“We did demos back in the 70s, but now they don’t work,” he says. “I laugh when manufacturers tell us it’s the best way to sell grills and accessories. We sell hundreds of grills a year, and demos do almost nothing for us.”

Instead, Emberson says most customers come to his store already with a good idea of what they want to buy. He says barbecue television programs and Internet searches have educated consumers about products, or at least product categories, and have replaced the relevancy of in-store demonstrations. “TV and Google play a huge role in the sales process now,” he says. “We just help customers finalize decisions.”

Jodi Burson, director of Brand Enhancement at Big Green Egg, disagrees. “Someone can go online and do all the research they want about the features, the warranties, the quality of the product,” she says. “But there’s nothing like experiencing the aromas and tasting the food in person.”

When Big Green Egg distributor Georgia Hearth Sales & Distribution noticed a disinterest in demos among its dealers, it launched a turnkey program designed to teach store owners how to do the events successfully. The distribution company brings a five-person cooking team, salespeople, four tents, big balloons, and all the food to the store, and conducts the entire event from set-up to clean-up. The dealer is responsible for advertising and promoting the event locally through traditional and social media.

Big Green Egg demo day at Cook’s Warehouse, Atlanta, Georgia.

Georgia Hearth Sales & Distribution conducted 51 such events in 2014, the second year of the program, according to president Jennifer Davis. “The dealers who did the demo program averaged 65 percent sales growth for the year,” she says. “The impact of these events is real and long-lasting. This year we had requests from 250 dealers.”

According to Davis, a key goal of the program is teaching retailers and their employees how to create effective promotional events so they can continue to do them on an ongoing basis. “Retailers have so much to do with limited personnel, and grills might just be one of many product categories they carry, so it’s easy for demos to fall by the wayside and get lost in the day-to-day running of the business,” Davis says.

“Also, some dealers avoid events because they believe they’re expensive and time-consuming with the high cost of meat and a lot of food prep involved. But that doesn’t have to be the case.”

Davis says her company purchases “normal, everyday foods geared to backyard chefs – nothing fancy,” for their demos. While typical items such as chicken are in the rotation, they also work in some unusual, non-traditional dishes to showcase versatility and generate excitement.

“We might bake cookies or a cobbler,” she says. “And we make this frozen rice dish from Sam’s Club that costs $3. When you cook it on the grill and it gets that hint of smokiness, it’s just delicious and people love it.”

Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.

– Confucius

The experts say the goal of demo events is not to serve a meal, but to use food as a way to attract and involve customers to ultimately spur sales. “People love food and these events get them engaged,” says Davis.

Once you have their attention, it’s easier to get into product details, say the experts. Show them how easy it is to light a charcoal grill, or demonstrate the benefits of an infrared burner by comparing food cooked on a traditional burner. Customers might even go for that sideburner upgrade after seeing a side dish sautéed on it. Incorporating grilling accessories into every demo helps to generate sales of those products, as well.

“Demos are standard operating procedure for us,” says Steve Romero, sales manager at BBQ Outfitters with stores in Austin and San Antonio, Texas. The retailer conducts the events every Saturday, and says they’re “very effective.” Romero likens a demo to test-driving a car. “Demos allow people to taste the food and test out the grill. You wouldn’t buy a car unless you could take it for a spin, right?”

On any given Saturday, the staff might be smoking baby back ribs, or grilling pizza, hamburgers or hot dogs. During football season they do a lot of wings. “If steaks are on sale, I’ll grill steaks,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what’s on the menu, the aromas and flavors capture customers’ attention.”

Does it result in a sale on the spot? Not always, says Romero. “People shop on Saturdays, check it out, taste the food. It’s a big investment, so they’ll often go home and think about it and come back on Sunday or Monday to buy,” he says. “Sundays and Mondays are big sales days for us for that reason.”

When the retailer opened its second location nearly two years ago, it hosted a grand opening event with 10 of its vendors on hand cooking for customers in the parking lot. The store recently repeated the event, advertising it on local radio, and “the turnout was terrific. It was great for business,” Romero says.

Mike Barrett, Weber sales representative, at the company’s kettle grill during the grand opening in San Antonio, Texas for BBQ Outfitters.

Doug Sanicola, president of Outdoor Elegance in La Verne, California, is another believer in the power of promotions. Like Romero, Sanicola demos every Saturday, often simply grilling hot dogs. To spur holiday sales, his team cooks turkeys every weekend in November, sampling the finished product to customers.

“It almost doesn’t matter what you cook; the aromas are the most important aspect of the demo,” he says. “When a customer walks up and smells the wood smoke, it gets them interested. Demos drive traffic to the store and give us an opportunity to enter into a conversation with customers.”

Besides weekly demos, Sanicola also holds large-scale demo events involving multiple suppliers, hosts cook-offs, and conducts classes, all of which have been effective at drawing customers to the store and selling product. He takes promotions on the road as well, grilling off-site at fundraising events supporting local charities. “These events not only build goodwill, they result in a lot of sales for us,” Sanicola says.

Demos and other promotional events are a major part of the marketing mix at ABSCO Fireplace & Patio’s three Birmingham, Alabama, locations, according to Cathy Galbreath-Buzbee. A recent barbecue and grilling master class with celebrity chef John Henry packed the house. Besides teaching advanced barbecue techniques, the event was an opportunity to showcase Henry’s branded line of barbecue seasonings and sauces.

“As attendees sampled the food during the class, they could check off the seasonings they wanted to purchase on order forms we gave them,” says Galbreath-Buzbee. “Our staff members filled the orders before the guests left. Almost every person spent $100 or more on rubs and sauces as a result of the class.”

The company’s largest undertaking is its annual Eggfest promotion in June. Known as “Big Green Eggs in the ‘Ham,” the event is a fundraiser for the Easter Seals organization and is held at nearby Regions Field minor league ballpark. The third annual event in 2015 attracted about 50 cooking teams, 1,200 attendees, several celebrity barbecue guests, and a live remote broadcast by the local sports talk radio station.

“All of our promotional events help draw traffic to our stores,” Galbreath-Buzbee says. “They generate a lot of exposure for us.”

Successful promotions are not limited to cooking events, however. Showcasing grills, outdoor kitchens, and outdoor hearth products at designer house tours, home and garden shows, and other venues can also be effective ways to promote your business, engage consumers and generate sales.

Cal Spas has gained considerable exposure for its spas and outdoor kitchen islands through product placements on television shows such as DIY Network home improvement shows, MTV’s “The Real World,” “Let’s Make a Deal,” and “Price is Right,” according to executive vice president Shiva Noble. This season, a Cal Spas hot tub is being featured on “Dash Dolls,” a new spin-off of the popular reality show “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

“Getting our product on these shows is no different than a designer providing a $10,000 gown to a celebrity to wear on the red carpet,” says Noble. “It’s about making consumers say, ‘Wow!’ and making them aware of your product.” Though difficult to precisely trace sales to such promotions, Noble says they definitely have a positive impact.

“The return on investment is well worth it,” she says. “We see activity on our website go up after an episode runs, and see a definite increase in information requests,” she says. “These promotions help drive consumers to our dealers, and then it’s up to our dealers to close the sale.”

Noble says the company’s most successful dealers build on the awareness generated by corporate promotions by holding their own in-store events. “They do things like parking lot tent sales and charity events,” she says. “Recently, one of our dealers invited customers for a steak cook-off. These kinds of things stay in customers’ minds, so even if they’re not ready to buy that day, they will remember the dealer where they had that experience, and return to buy when they are ready.”

Demos and promotional events have been instrumental to the success of Big Green Egg, and the company remains committed to them. It hosts Eggtoberfest, an annual festival that draws thousands of attendees, and assists with more than 60 local Eggfests run by its dealers and distributors all over the country. The company participates in everything from culinary events such as “Taste of Atlanta,” to professional fishing tournaments and NASCAR races.

Recently, it was a sponsor of the Academy of Country Music Awards, conducting cooking demos in public areas for attendees, and cooking and serving smoked pork and beef brisket tacos in the VIP area for musicians and crew members. The social media exposure gained by celebrities posting on social media about what they were eating is invaluable, says Burson.

But regardless of the size or scope of the events, they all have one thing in common, according to Burson. “They are really just demos on a grand scale. They allow us to get people to taste the food. Our post-purchase surveys tell us that tasting is the number one reason people buy an Egg.”

Outdoor Elegance promotion event in La Verne, California.

The Science Behind Sampling

The experts say there is science behind why this kind of sampling works. A study reported in The Atlantic, “The Psychology Behind Costco’s Free Samples,” showed a substantial sales lift when products were sampled: a 300 percent sales increase for wine, 500 percent for lipstick, 600 percent for frozen pizza, and 100 percent for cheese.

The reason, according to behavioral economists, is the “reciprocity instinct,” a sense of obligation to buy after you’ve been given something. This phenomenon is even greater when a customer is handed the sample by a person, as opposed to picking it up from an unattended table, according to findings from a 2011 study in the British Food Journal. The report says customers feel a “sense of social pressure to make a post-sample purchase” and that they felt they “owed the demonstrator something.”

While it may be a stretch to think someone would feel obligated to purchase a $2,000 grill in return for a bite-size piece of hot dog, it’s a pretty convincing argument for using sampling to grow sales of barbecue sauces, marinades and spice rubs.

It’s a technique that works for Romero, who says staff members at BBQ Outfitters approach customers at the seasonings display and ask if they would like to try something. “It’s more effective when a salesperson offers the taste,” he says, “because it allows us to engage the customer in conversation.”

Starting conversations is the first step to closing sales, retailers say. Demos and promotional events create opportunities to do exactly that. They generate excitement, engage customers, build loyalty, and form relationships that, hopefully, will not just yield sales in the short term, but return visits to the store for ongoing sales.

The bottom line, says Romero, is creating an enjoyable and memorable experience for customers. “If you’re shopping and someone gives you something to taste, or you’re getting a pedicure and the salon gives you a glass of wine, wouldn’t you rather do business at places like that? It works for us.”

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