Maximizing Test Store Performance (A Must-Read for Challenger Brands at Retail)

By Vince Young

between a rock and hard place BOOK

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Personally, I’ve been debating for a few weeks now as to whether or not I should write this post. I will admit right now that I’m going to a very controversial place, but one that those who have ever managed a challenger brand at retail will find all too familiar.  (Not saying this situation is on the same level as what Aron Ralston faced, but it is a critical retail dilemma).


What should you do when your fate at retail is dependent on your product’s performance in a handful of “test stores?” If your sell-through is strong, then your product line gets rolled out to all stores nationally – if not, then your door practically closes forever at that retailer with that product line, even down the road when the “new and improved” version hits the market. The real question that we all struggle with is “Should my company put forth any efforts to stimulate demand in a test store environment, even though we know that those efforts will not likely be replicated upon national roll-out?” The answer is an unequivocal, “yes!”


Test store situations are rarely fair to the challenger brand and are not predictive of performance if the brand were supported by national chain distribution – the deck is highly stacked to favor the house. Why? There are several reasons: 1. Because sometimes, slotting fees and other “buy-in” allowances are sometimes still required even though your product line is not really benefiting from the things that those costs should afford your product line; 2. Your product line is excluded from national support vehicles such as the retailer’s circular, employee training programs, etc. because your line is not distributed nationally; and 3. Your marketing investment to support a small test store launch will be highly inefficient given the spotty nature of your retail presence.

So what should a challenger brand do to maximize its performance in a “test store(s)” scenario with retail? It depends…

how it plays in peoriaIf you know the locations of the test stores and markets, then there are several things that you should consider in order to maximize sell-through.


  1. Advertise Your Product’s Presence at Retail via Facebook Targeting– The audience on Facebook is massive and Facebook ads can be highly targeted. By leveraging key words in user profiles, you can efficiently promote your product’s retail presence to the consumers who are most likely to buy while communicating to only those people who are in the same markets as your test stores.  Today, targeted Facebook ads are fairly inexpensive and they can be designed and placed in a matter of minutes.
  2. Leverage Digitally Printed Direct Mail with Variable Data Fields – Digital printing allows for shorter, customizable runs and the quality today almost equals that of traditional offset printing. Direct mail allows you to feature your product line in both images and words while the variable data field(s) can be used to direct targeted end-users to the specific store location where your product is stocked.
  3. Mobilize Your Own “Nation” – Send targeted e-mails and launch an outbound telesales campaign to every database to which you have access. Pool the contact information from your historical promotion campaigns, your product registrations, your customer support calls, etc to identify consumers who are in the same market as your test stores and drive them to the stores to buy.
  4. Install In-store “Advocates” – Invest in an “anonymous”  3rd party team of advocates  to praise your products in-store with store management, talk it up to store associates/clerks, complete favorable consumer feedback forms and place them in the “guest feedback” box in-store, etc.


top secretSometimes, however, the retailer stacks the deck against your brand even more and they keep the location(s) of your test stores a secret. If you do not know the locations or markets of your store tests, then you need to make it your goal to find out where they are. Once you find out, then you can use some of the approaches listed above to optimize your performance. To find out the locations of your test stores, you should consider the following.


  1. Ship your product to the retailer on RFID-tagged pallets. There are many suppliers today to choose from and it is unlikely that the retailer will use a distribution center to get your product to store.
  2. 2d marketing barcodePrint 2D barcodes on your outer pack and your individual product package – Lots of consumers today use their camera phones to read 2D codes in an effort to find promotional offers/coupons, product reviews, or additional product information. The companies who develop the 2D code reader software should be able to tell you where the scan came from.
  3. Conduct a query with the retailer’s website – Sometimes, a retailer may only assort your products in a few test stores, but add your skus to their on-line assortment. If you get lucky, the on-line customer support rep may mistakenly tell you where you can find the product in retail if you ask as a consumer.
  4. Partner with Another Company who Services Chainwide Distribution – Offer to pay a partial labor fee to a non-competing company who goes into all stores to support their products (eg. Direct-Store Delivery models). Leverage those service forces to complete a simple audit of whether or not your product was present in-store. A list of stores can be provided to you in a matter of days.

Successful performance in a test store environment is oftentimes critical to gaining retail leverage. Spare no expense to insure your product line’s sales results are impressive.

How far have you gone to maximize performance in a test market environment? Share your stories with us!

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