If you want to understand customer tastes, engage customers in product development. That’s the thinking behind a five-year-old products appraisal process unique to Sobeys.
The grocery chain currently employs 140 to 150 customer panelists across the country to blind taste-test more than 3,000 food products each year, many of them launched or adapted for the chain’s Compliments label.
“We’re using real customers to find out what they really want, not what we think they want,” said John Hale, director of product appraisal and customer care.
Sobeys advertises for new panelists only in regional stores where new tasters are needed. Applicants first participate in a three-hour sensory workshop to screen them for suitability.
“They have to discriminate between two or three food samples, and demonstrate use of descriptive terminology,” explained Hale. “And 85 per cent of taste comes down to their ability to smell.”
Hale says about 65 per cent of Canadians would qualify as “average tasters,” the type Sobeys looks for in potential panelists.
And different regions, not surprisingly, have different tastes, so Sobeys sometimes will only test and launch a product in a particular region of the country. For example, Atlantic Canadians tend to like salty foods, while Quebecers have a sweet tooth that would repulse most other Canadians.
Following a training period, the customer panelists are retained to taste-test Compliments and competitor products three or four times per month, ideally on a long-term contract. Tasters/panelists try up to six products in each three-hour tasting session as Hale said more than that would ruin their senses.
What panelists taste in the first few weeks following training is disregarded, and those with food allergies are weeded out. Hale says following one year, they start to get very good.
“Eighty per cent of the products tested make it to store shelves within four to six months under the Compliments brand name,” said Hale.