Should Every Marketer Demo Coffee at Costco?

I knew this guy—let’s call him John. We occasionally worked together sampling coffee at Costco for a regional coffee roaster. Every weekend, the roaster sent teams of two-to-three people to Costcos all over the region. People came to our booth, asked for samples, we served them, answered questions and hoped they bought some bags of coffee.

Or I should say, most of us hoped. John didn’t believe hope was reliable enough. He was a divorced single father, and we were on commission. The more bags we sold as a team, the more money we made. For more than a year, I spent my weekends working the demo stands as a way to make money. It was one of three part-time jobs I’d patched together, along with a full-time publishing job that frequently required extra hours. When the doors opened and the shoppers rushed in, I was already tired.

Any Costco on a weekend is like going to a fair. The aisles are crowded with people and carts. Demo stations are set up around the store, with long lines of customers waiting to get a free spoonful of ice cream or a pinch of trail mix. We served shot-glass-sized containers of coffee (six different kinds). The coffee was delicious. It was so good that we were busy nonstop for eight hours at most Costcos. If we hadn’t been to a particular location for awhile, people would plan their shopping around our schedule.

Being busy was great. The more coffee we sampled, the more likely we would sell bags of it, and the more commission we would make. We made good money with little effort, and that was enough for most of us at the time.

John was different. He didn’t want good money. He wanted as much money as possible. So he did something the rest of us didn’t—he actually sold the coffee.

While we spent most of our time brewing, pouring and grinding coffee for customers, John would zero in on one or two people at a time and spend between 5 to 10 minutes talking with them. He would pour each kind of coffee, ask them what they thought, explain the differences, and make recommendations. While most of us were trying to serve as many people as fast as possible, John ignored anyone in line who he wasn’t talking to directly.

Another friend of mine—let’s call her Jane—disliked working with John. When the three of us worked together, she’d pressured him to hurry up, interact with more customers, and admonish him for letting the line get too long.

As a marketing professional and former advertising salesperson, I look back and see both approaches as metaphors for how companies could conduct themselves. Both are valid strategies depending on the organization’s culture and business goals.

But I also won’t forget my paycheck. Of the people John talked to, I can’t say exactly how many bought bags of coffee, but it was most. And when they bought the coffee, they always bought more than one bag. When John was on our team, I made more money. And I guess I also learned some pretty good lessons.

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