Whether it’s an appearance by America’s Watermelon Queen in the produce aisles or a live concert in the meat department, Judy Bennett knows how to create customer excitement through in-store events. The head of PR for 12-store Colemans in Newfoundland has overseen literally hundreds of events, from appearances by reality TV stars to a bridal show. Bennett’s commitment to the industry saw her named one of Canadian Grocer’s Star Women in Grocery last year. She recently talked with us about why in-store events matter and how to do them right. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You’ve become an expert at doing store events. How did you get started?
I’ve been with Colemans for 29 years, but I joined the food division and became involved in promotions and event planning back in 1992. One of the most important things Colemans does is make a difference in the com- munities we serve; that translates into promotions. When you’re doing a promotion, it’s fun to involve the community and do things that excite your customers.
Before I moved to grocery, one of my responsibilities was working at Maggie’s Restaurant, which was owed by Colemans, where I started out planning events like pasta night. We were the first restaurant on the west coast [of Newfoundland] to go smoke- free and that garnered so much positive attention that it opened my eyes to the power of the media.
What are the keys to a successful supermarket promotion?
You need to listen to customers, find out what excites them. It’s also important to let the public know that you’re having a promotion through posters, radio advertising and flyers. Social media [such as] Facebook and Twitter have also [helped] in getting the word out.
In our case, there are so many interesting people who live in or are from Newfoundland that we have invited to our stores. For instance, [Isle Aux Morts resident Tyler LeFrense] made it into the Top 4 of Lay’s Canada’s “Do us a Flavour!” contest last year. As soon as I saw his face on the back of a chips bag, I phoned him up and invited him to appear in six of our stores. You’ve got to keep your ears and eyes open that people are going to rally around. Don’t make them so grandiose you can’t execute. If you live in an Irish community, you’re going to do Irish things; if you live in a German community, you’re going to have sausages, sauerkraut and beer. Build your promotions around things that reflect your community.
Do you run the risk of overkill by having too many events?
I send so many news releases to the media, I’m sure they must say, “Does Colemans do anything else besides party and have promotions?” But it sets us apart.
If, as a store owner or manager, you’re just starting out and you’ve never done promotional events like this, look at key occasions such as Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day. What can you do in your store to enhance Valentine’s Day and create excitement? Pick four key times of the year. Once that’s rolling, you can begin adding a few more, such as Canada Day and Thanksgiving. Sit down with your staff and plan three to six months out.
Do you recommend a dedicated budget? And how much is enough?
It depends on how big or small you want to go. A promotion in one store might cost $100 or less; a province-wide promotion, in our case [with 12 stores] you’re probably going to need $1,000to $5,000, depending on the size of the event. It’s important to budget.
In terms of payoff, can you quantify what success looks like?
We want to create excitement for the customer, so that when they come to a Colemans, they never know what they’re going to see or do. We had a contest in eight of our larger stores where we had a putting green set up [for the chance to win prizes]. We partnered with Coca-Cola on that promotion.
Another example: there’s a reality show on the Discovery Channel called Cold Water Cowboys. It’s about a fishery and features six Newfoundland fishermen. So you can imagine how exciting it is for Newfoundlanders to turn on their television and see six Newfies featured on a reality show. We arranged to have one, Conway Caines, in our store. When he came through the doors there was already a crowd gathered. He’s not Madonna, he’s not the president of the United States. He’s Conway Caines from a little fishing village on the northern peninsula. But people gravitate to the famous. And our customers loved hearing his story, how he got picked for the show, what it’s like being on TV. We had 14-year-olds going nuts like they were meeting the Beatles.
You’ve done so many events, but do you have one that stands out?
The Watermelon Queen from the United States is one of the ones I love the most, because it’s an international promotion and we were the first ones to bring her to Newfoundland.
Several years ago, we were at a produce show and our produce buyer, Byron Bellows, visited the National Watermelon Association booth and met the Watermelon Queen. He discovered they’ve been crowning a Watermelon Queen since 1968, but the winner had never been to Eastern Canada.
So we invited the Watermelon Queen to come up, and invited a couple hundred kids to come meet her. Little boys and girls loved to meet the Watermelon Queen, get a little sticker, get a piece of watermelon and then joined in on a watermelon-eating contest.
A number of years ago, I started bringing two watermelon queens to our stores: the national queen and another, such as Miss Georgia. I’ll have the national queen do the east coast of Newfoundland, where I can garner the most attention from media in St. John’s; and then I’ll have the regional queen do the west coast. We get a ton of attention bringing them to Newfoundland.
You’ve also held some shows in your store: a bridal show and a concert.
Due to TV shows like Cake Boss and Say Yes to the Dress, weddings have been elevated to a whole new level. There was no bridal show in Corner Brook, so with urging from our floral manager we threw one. The idea started small with flowers and wedding cakes from our bakery. Then we invited our furniture division to bring in a whole bedroom suite and set it up in the meat aisle along with a local bridal shop that modelled wedding dresses. We had a huge turnout, which turned into floral, cake and deli tray sales.
As for the concert, there is a huge annual festival held on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland for 10 days every May, called Trails, Tales and Tunes. The directors wanted to do something unique to promote it. So they asked if we would host a full afternoon of local musical entertainment at our Colemans At The Gardens in Corner Brook. It would mean moving racks around and disrupting the flow of traffic. However, we felt this type of partnership with the arts community was worth it. A thousand people visited our fairly new store in one day and it really catapulted us into provincial acclaim. We still hire local musicians to perform weekly at the Gardens store.
Any events you’d like to forget?
We had a [baby] crawling contest one time. We partnered with a diaper company, laid cardboard out on the floor so the little crawlers wouldn’t hurt their knees, and lined both sides with diapers about three feet high. The mothers released their baby at the start line and the one that crossed the finish line first won a gold medal and a gift basket filled with diapers. I don’t know that I’d attempt that one again. When you think about insurance and mothers letting their baby crawl up a grocery aisle, I don’t know if that would fly in 2014.
Any promotions you’re keen to do that you haven’t yet?
The one I’ve wanted to do for years is a dog show in our parking lot. I’m thinking about a mini-version of the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, with about 50 to 60 dogs.
I also watch the Food Network all the time, so I’d really like to do some sort of promotion involving children 12 to 16 learning how to cook. I’d like it to be something that gets them excited about food and [teaches them] that food doesn’t always have to come in a McDonald’s wrapper–that real nutritious food can taste good.