The gadgetry and gimmickry of selling groceries

Imagine a supermarket where electronic voices dart out at you with a few soothing words about specially priced soap, shelf-mounted videos banner the virtues of high-fiber cereals, and the carefully synthesized aroma of chocolate lures you toward a favorite candy bar. For good measure, perhaps, a holographic ``Joe the butcher'' will chat about a bargain on hamburger before fading into thin air. Such wonders are virtually upon us, according to syndicated columnist Martin Sloan, who has built a career on monitoring and publicizing the world of supermarket promotions. When electronics invades the neighborhood supermarket, says Mr. Sloan, it will ``create the feeling that shoppers are the players, on stage, and behind the scenes are all these little people aiming the devices at them.''

The ``devices'' are in the test-run stage now, he says. The Cam-Talker, made by Cam Industries of Topeka, Kan., has been tested by large firms such as Anheuser-Busch, according to a spokesman for the company. The gadget, essentially a recorder with an ``endless loop tape,'' dispenses voice messages as shoppers stroll by. The Sniff-Teaser, produced by Ledan Inc., a New York company, can reproduce such shopper-enticing aromas as bacon, pina colada, and, yes, chocolate. And it's only a short hop from the eerie images that populate the haunted house at Disneyland to the holographic butcher/pitchman. The technology's in hand, says Sloan.

Such sophisticated gadgetry has long been presaged by less spectacular forms of marketing technology. Pink lighting over the meat counter or white light over fish and chicken are examples cited by Richard Bennington, who teaches business and economics at High Point College in High Point, N.C. They make the product look more appetizing, he explains.

Signs directing shoppers to products, flashier lighting and paint schemes, and, particularly, the spread of deli counters and salad bars - all are efforts to cater to a new breed of ``upscale customer, people interested in a pleasurable shopping sensation,'' says Bennington. He says shoppers are looking for entertainment and excitement, as well as for items hastily scribbled on their lists.

That's Sloan's point exactly. ``Stores are becoming ultimately large, and they're in danger of becoming ultimately boring,'' he says. ``All the devices will make them become a little more entertaining.''

Entertainment, too, is what's behind such current product promotions as Ralston Purina's gimmick of putting money in boxes of its Almond Delight cereal. Of course, it's not very much money, though a big bill - up to $500 - is slipped very occasionally into the foil envelope that's inserted into the package. Much more often, shoppers in the test market areas will find a few pennies worth of foreign currency - Bulgarian, Bolivian, or Indonesian, for instance.

That's really just a new twist on the 60- or 70-year-old Cracker Jack prize idea, notes Ron Curhan, a professor at Boston University's school of management. With the cash, it ``almost takes on the possibility of being a lottery,'' he adds. In his view, this technique, like all others, is aimed at catching the consumer's eye. ``If it's seen, it might be purchased,'' Dr. Curhan says, summing up the marketer's strategy.

Sloan, who has been on tour for Ralston Purina, publicizing its Almond Delight promotion, predicts ``you're going to see much more of this.'' The day is not far off, he says in a tone of quiet zealotry, when you'll reach into the box and pull out car keys, ``to a real Mercedes Benz.'' After all, what's the price of a Mercedes compared to millions in cereal sales?

To grasp the reasoning behind all these promotional gimmicks, you have to remember that most grocery items are produced by ``mature industries'' that are not experiencing much net growth in profits, says Charles Alford, a professor of economics at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. In this situation, he says, the only way to increase sales is at the expense of a competitor.

Hence the endless push for promotions that promise a quick, if temporary, advantage over the competition - whether the rival is another brand of cereal, or another market a few blocks away. ``Lots of supermarket promotions do tend to cycle in and out,'' says Dr. Alford. Couponing, with its many variations of ``double coupons'' is a case in point.

The supermarket industry, points out Michael Levy, who teaches marketing at Southern Methodist University, ``is one of the most complex when it comes to pricing and promotion. The turnover is so fast. They're doing their tactical planning on a week-to-week basis, while a department store ... does it on a seasonal basis.''

Is there a chance that the high-powered promotional tactics envisioned by Sloan might become overkill, disgusting shoppers rather than delighting them?

``The supermarkets have an obligation to limit it, to install only those they feel are most productive,'' he answers.

Curhan observes that if only a tiny number of people take offense at something like scent dispensers - asserting the smell of chocolate, for instance, makes them ill - stores will quickly shy away, fearing lawsuits.

Still, Sloan says, a new day of promotional technology is inevitably dawning for the grocery shopper. ``They're going to attack your senses,'' he avers.

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