The Science of Sampling at Sam’s Club

By Emily Schmid
August 5, 2015
Photo of a Sam's Club member shopping for cheese

Food samples have long been part of the fun of strolling through a warehouse club. But did you know that at Sam’s Club, each of those items goes through an extensive taste test before they ever hit the demo booth?

Behind the scenes, there’s a group whose job is to ensure that every food product on Sam’s Club shelves is as close to perfect as possible. And they’ve got some help: nearly every associate who works at the Sam’s Club corporate office.

Thirty-six products per week are put through a taste panel where a team of food scientists receives feedback on flavor, texture, appearance and more. It happens at the Sam’s Club Sensory Lab, a test kitchen with sampling booths where associates are invited each day to come try items that are new, in development or in need of tweaking.

The team – Angela Hebert, Claire Aucella and Emily Luciano – then gives the results to Sam’s Club’s merchants and suppliers, who use the data to inform their work.

In July, the group hit a milestone: 10,000 items tested since the panels began in 2008. It’s quite a landmark for Angela, a senior product development manager who started the process to help solve a debate over a new item: roast beef deli meat. A steak-like piece of beef was being proposed for slicing, but Angela told the merchant team it was too fatty. Fat isn’t an attribute that consumers want in a sandwich meat, she explained, and to get her point across, she suggested testing the proposed product against the leading deli meat. The leading deli meat won, showing that consumer data was helpful for settling these types of decisions.
“Say you’re in bakery, and you have a buyer who hates cheesecake, but he or she still has to buy that,” Angela said. “If you’ve got lots of companies coming to you, saying, ‘I’ve got the best cheesecake in the world!’ it makes it difficult to pick one for our members. Let’s allow the consumer to choose.”

The process also helps guide the creation of new items, allowing the team to refine each detail before putting something on the shelf. When developing a new frozen pepperoni pizza, for example, the team researched other leading brands in a comprehensive way: They weighed them, picked off all the pepperonis, weighed those separately, washed the cheese, measured how much was on the pizza, and created percentages for all those data points. They also took a look at the packaging. Was it resealable? How big was the cardboard circle supporting it?

“Food or cooking is always the center of any home,” Angela said. “If you ever cook a meal, the one thing you look forward to is knowing, did they like it? Walking through the club, seeing an item and knowing that’s my formula – that’s a cool feeling. That’s why we look at every little aspect to ensure it’s perfect for our members. They are paying for their memberships, and they should get something in return.”

Some days that means tasting steak and lobster ravioli; other days it means sampling dried prunes. No matter what’s on the panel menu for the day, associates who frequently participate say it’s a perk. With two panels of four items each happening every day but Friday, those who get creative could almost make a whole meal of the experience.

Joe Calvin, who works in Sam’s Club finance, says he is a “frequent flier” who participates in at least one sampling every day. “That’s what I’m here for. The company needs me,” he joked after submitting his questionnaires.  “I would even come on the weekends if I could.”