Whats In-Store For You?

A Piece of the Pie

If you're looking to start your own demo business, rather than purchase an existing one, you needn't have a mountain of start-up capital. Maggie Dahl, 36, began Minnesota-based Demos Unlimited of Mankato on the proverbial shoestring.

"I got the idea while handing out pizza samples in a supermarket for my husband, who's a pizza company sales representative," Dahl says. "I saw the need for trained in-store demonstrators when the supermarket manager complimented my professionalism and asked me to do all of the store's demos."

Kevin Hormann, manager of Mankato's Hy-Vee supermarket, says in-store demos increase a product's sales because consumers can sample the product and can ask the demonstrator questions about it before buying. Stores that use a demo service have no labor or training costs, since the demonstrators are hired by the demo-service company.

Without a track record, a start-up demo service might have to offer a free demo to supermarket managers, who, if satisfied, may connect the entrepreneur with food distributors and manufacturers. With references from the supermarket manager, Dahl started her homebased business by mailing demonstration proposals to other supermarket managers in Mankato, recruiting neighbors and acquaintances to work as demonstrators, and holding a training session.

Dahl began with a typewriter, a phone, and access to a copier, later adding a computer and fax machine. She developed a corps of 300 in-store demonstrators to serve various supermarkets and discount stores in southern and central Minnesota and western Wisconsin.

"People skills are very important," says Dahl. "You must adapt to various community atmospheres. You need patience, tact, organizational ability, and plenty of stamina. You must be willing to work up to 60 hours a week the first few years--something I didn't realize when I began."

Dahl developed markets in new communities during the day and worked on established accounts each evening. She then hired Connie Mettler as a field coordinator, and demonstrator Pat Redig as an office manager. In 1987, when Redig bought into the business, she and Dahl moved the office to a downtown location. The company incorporated for liability and tax benefits, and carried liability insurance.

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This article was originally published in the February 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Whats In-Store For You?.

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