Coming soon to retailers: a free candy sample in exchange for a simple smile, with no store associates or in-store marketing firm employees involved? It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.
Faced with dire warnings of the imminent death of center store, The Hershey Co., manufacturer of iconic Hershey's products and other well-known confectionery and snack brands, undertook research over the past two years to find out "what … a good experience [looks] like at retail," Frank Jimenez, senior director, insights driven performance (IDP) and retail evolution at the Pennsylvania-based company, told Progressive Grocer in a phone interview. The main takeaway from all of that research, according to Jimenez, was that "consumers love to sample products." What's more, shoppers' prevailing attitude was found to be, "If you can give me an experience in-store, I will pay for that," he noted.
Recognizing the importance of these two pieces of information, Hershey, whose innovative Candy Experience concept debuted late last year at Winn-Dixie and is expected to roll out in versions tailored to individual retailers across channels during the third and fourth quarters of this year, turned to technology and marketing partners to help create a sampling-related "engagement model" to "get people down the [candy] aisle," said Jimenez -- a particularly crucial goal for retailers with limited cap ex, where it isn't feasible to "blow up the aisle" like the Candy Experience does.
One collaborator on the project was Wild Blue Technologies, an upstream experiential design firm based in De Pere, Wis. Acknowledging that sampling as it currently stands is "labor-intensive" and "transactional" in nature, Wild Blue President Steve McLean explained that the idea was to make it "labor-neutral" and "playful," but still "interactive," while banishing forever the image of "a person with a hairnet handing out product."
Noting that candy is a "happy category" with "fun brands," McLean said that the project positioned candy as a reward or treat for consumers through an in-aisle automated sampling system, thereby driving traffic down the candy aisle. A consumer participant's smile would activate the machine, which would then present the smiler with a sample. "Basically, you’re rewarded for smiling," observed McLean. The system's facial recognition technology would keep people from abusing the privilege by coming back for multiple candy samples; individual retailers would be able to set the machine to their own specifications as to how long an interval can elapse between repeat visits.
The system, currently in prototype form, is "getting retail-ready," according to McLean, who added that the designers were grappling with such issues as the right type of candy to offer in the machine, including new product introductions; possible allergens in items; and even ADA requirements affecting certain shoppers, such as "people who physically can't smile."
Additionally, as Rana el Kaliouby, chief strategy and science officer and co-founder of Waltham, Mass.-based Affectiva, their software project partner, pointed out, the final version of the machine will need to work "with a wide range of demographics and emotions." A former MIT Media Lab research scientist who spearheaded the applications of facial coding, el Kaliouby noted that the technology has to "recognize a variety of smiles"; this can be tricky for a mere machine, given that "Asians have more subtle smiles than Brazilians."
Of course, as well as appealing to a broad swath of ethnicities, income levels and ages, the program squarely targets the coveted Millennial demographic, which seeks permission to indulge in its favorite treats, as well as unique forms of engagement. As for what items might be sampled, Jimenez observed that certain product lines, like Hershey's Kisses, "resonate" across generations.
El Kaliouby said her work also revealed that "the more emotionally engaged a person is, the more powerful the experience," turning that person into an advocate for the brand and driving purchase. Further, when the retail experience is a good one, "both retailer and brand get credit," asserted Jimenez. "From that perspective, everybody wins: retailer, manufacturer and consumer."
Broadening the Halo
What's at stake here, especially at a time when center store sales are languishing, is considerable: Citing Nielsen figures, Jimenez noted that increasing one point of conversion in aisle could yield as much as $100 million in revenue. Driving people down the candy aisle by means of the sampling system would have a "halo effect" on snacking in general, he added.
After the eventual multichannel rollout of the prototype system to test stores in select markets later this year, the project partners, after carefully logging consumer reactions, including "what kind of repeatability we get," plan to "[take] that experience and [build] on it" to create the system's next iteration, they explained.
Beyond candy, the concept may prove workable in other areas of center store. Jimenez saw the rollout as a "litmus test," musing, "If it works in confectionery, where else might it work?"