Gone are the days when in-store demonstrations meant someone standing silently behind a table handing out samples of cheese spread on a cracker. Today’s successful demonstrators know that cracker inside and out, they engage the customer in conversation and they might even show an eye-catching YouTube product video or display the company’s Facebook page or Twitter feed on a laptop computer.

“In-store demos now offer an opportunity to connect directly with the customer,” says Kirsten Osolind, CEO of re:invention, a Coronado, Calif.-based marketing and public relations firm. “The more connection, the higher the sales.” More importantly in today’s economy, consumers want to know what they’re getting. Whether it’s a dietary supplement, body lotion or new beverage, sampling is a way to gain consumer confidence and lower the perceived risk of trying something new.

In-store demos can be as complex as a manufacturer-hosted sampling program in concert with a larger multimedia campaign, or as simple as a seasonal produce sampling station. But regardless of whether your store plans its own sampling programs, hires an outsourcing company or partners with a manufacturer, statistics show sampling works.

According to a 2008 study by Columbia, Md.-based market research firm Arbitron, more than a third of customers who tried samples said they bought the product during the same shopping trip. Better yet, among the more than 1,800 respondents surveyed, 58 percent said they would buy the product again after trying it. Further, a store demo not only significantly increased an item’s sales (by 475 percent), but it also boosted sales for all products in the line by as much as 177 percent on the day of the demonstration, according to a 2009 study, “Report on In-store Sampling Effectiveness,” which was conducted by independent research firm Knowledge Networks PDI and commissioned by PromoWorks, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research company. (See “How sampling lifts sales,” to the right.) With this high rate of conversion, it might seem that conducting great store demos is foolproof, but there is more to it than meets the eye.