Sam’s Club ‘Sensory Lab’ tests holiday products

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 400 views 

Sam’s Club puts every fresh product sold in its clubs through a rigorous six-step regimen because company officials said its members expect quality, diversity and value in return for their annual membership dues.

Media members were recently given an inside look at the process into Sam’s “sensory lab” where food suppliers work with Angela Hebert, corporate chef at Sam’s Club to develop fresh product offerings like raspberry shortcake shots or chocolate mousse pyramids.  

These two dessert products were recently tested to see if they would make the grade for food items in clubs this next holiday season.

Bryant Harris, vice president of fresh grocery at Sam’s Club, said the sensory lab was developed three years ago and benchmarked against state-of-the art facilities like Tyson Foods’ Discovery Center and consultation with the many leading colleges affiliated with food science.

He said Hebert’s team will help to create, improve and panel test 1,700 fresh food products annually. The process is a competitive advantage because it gives Sam’s Club merchants objectivity that is needed when sourcing fresh foods.

“Our members pay for the privilege to shop with us, and they tell us that quality is the most important aspect. We are committed to delivering quality products that are not available anywhere else, because that’s what our members expect,” said Charles Redfield, executive vice president of merchandising for Sam’s Club.

Hebert said her team takes products brought to them by suppliers and then benchmarks those food items against any others that might be similar. The team then innovates when needed to improve various aspects of the product.

Next, the supplier creates the amended prototype and Sam’s Club conducts panel taste tests in its sensory lab to get a wide range of opinions. Roughly 80% of the food tested meets the minimum standard, but Hebert said just 15% makes into the clubs.

“We have two test panels a day with four foods in each panel. Between 65 to 100 people come down to take part in the tests each day,” Hebert said.

The panel tests rate the products on a range of attributes from taste to texture and panel participants are allowed to share any suggestions to improve the product further.

Herbert said once the fresh food item get’s chosen, the supplier will produce it for the clubs, but her team remains committed to maintaining the quality of that product for as long it is offered.

Harris said there are some local flavors that require remote panel testing such as Cajun cuisine because while red beans and rice and Jambalaya are recognized nationwide, they have different expectations in Louisiana.

“We continue to make sure our club’s have a choice of some local and regional flavors in additional to the select national items that make into our product mix,” he said.

The fresh and prepared foods that will make it into the clubs for this holiday season will be nailed down by end of this month, Harris said.

Consumers continue to look for convenience around the hectic holiday season, and Sam’s executives hope they will check out more than dozen new products from mildly pungent cheeses to chocolate almond cake and cranberry stuffed turkey breast.

While Sam’s Club does not break out its fresh or prepared food sales from the retailer’s total consumables, analysts said convenience foods are growing in popularity among consumers.

Industry wide, sales of prepared foods and ready-to-eat foods at retail exceeded $32.45 billion in 2012, up 7.5% from 2011, according to a report from

The prepared foods retail net extends across a wide number of retail formats, but supermarkets garner 60% of prepared foods purchase visits, the company said, trailed by Walmart (15%) and convenience stores (12%).

Analysts like Carol Spieckerman, CEO of New Market Builders, said convenience and fresh foods are being offered by various retail channels in hopes of taking marketshare from one another.

NPD tracks deli-prepared food purchases and research showed that nearly two-thirds of prepared foods purchased at retail are from supermarkets. According to an NPD survey, consumers choose supermarkets for prepared foods over quick service restaurants (QSR) because of convenience. They also choose supermarkets because of good prices, variety and healthier choices.

NPD, which has been tracking in-home eating behaviors for 30 years and foodservice usage for three decades, is projecting that the need for prepared meals and foods will continue to grow over the next few years.

“There is a huge opportunity in take-out meals and prepared foods,” said Ann Hanson, at NPD. “Consumers are not going to wake up tomorrow with more time on their hands and the urge to cook. In the end, it will be about meeting the consumer’s need for convenience.”

Sam’s Club executives said meeting the demands and needs of its members are its primary focus and the clubs will continue to offer products not found other places.

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