There’s a fine line between offering samples and “hawking,” but St. Armands leaders are willing to allow businesses to give samples a try — for now.
Paulette Callender, owner of the Spice and Tea Exchange on the Circle, appeared at the June St. Armands Business Improvement District to share how city regulations on offering free samples to passers-by affect her business. At Spice and Tea Exchange, employees offer tastes of popular spices to people walking through the Circle.
Callender says the sample offerings have been a boon to business, enticing shoppers that might not otherwise be familiar with the store’s products.
“Once people usually taste or smell the aroma coming from the store, they come in,” Callender said. “It’s a huge impact’”
Still, Callender said her employees were being intimidated and threatened with arrest if they continued to offer samples. At that Business Improvement District meeting, the board discussed the provisions of the city code that ban the practice of offering samples with City Attorney Robert Fournier.
The Spice and Tea Exchange was cited for “hawking,” according to the city’s code enforcement department. Under the code, merchants are not allowed to solicit customers on the street or sidewalk by stopping passers-by. Fournier said the code appeared designed to target barkers or other, more aggressive forms of solicitation, but that it still applied to the offering of samples outside.
The Circle’s tumultuous history with businesses offering free samples to passers-by can be tied back to a cosmetics store called Orogold. Employees at that business were aggressive in their pursuit of new customers, city Code Compliance Coordinator Lawrence Burleson said. During a Business Improvement District meeting discussion of sample regulations, several people recounted stories of businesses being spritzed with various scents as Orogold attempted to lure customers.
In response to that aggressive courtship of new business, Orogold was issued several warnings and eventually received a formal citation from the police department. Orogold has now moved out of its Circle location, and since then, there haven’t been many complaints about samples on St. Armands, Burleson said. He cites people for code violations when other people notify him; in addition to the Spice and Tea Exchange, the only other business that’s recently been cited for offering samples is the Fudge Factory.
Burleson said that, when he is asked to speak to a business that’s offering samples to people on the street, merchants give examples of other stores undertaking similar practices.
“When I talk to someone, they turn around and say, ‘What about them?’” Burleson said. “It’s a domino effect.”
At July’s Business Improvement District meeting, the board again tackled the topic of sample policy with Fournier. The group expressed an interest in giving businesses more freedom, but worried that the situation could quickly get out of hand if the rules were relaxed.
“I think, with all due respect fellow board members, we could be opening up Pandora’s Box to something down the pipe,” board member Michael Valentino said. “The next thing you know, you’re going to have 20 guys out there.”
Diana Corrigan, executive director of the St. Armands Circle Association, said she would stress to businesses that any loosening of the regulations was a privilege that merchants needed to use with respect. If the situation did get out of hand, she said, it was reasonable to return to the current standards.
“I know that those particular people (currently being cited) aren’t being aggressive when they’re out there with samples,” Corrigan said. “They want to help our businesses, but it can’t be aggressive.”
The Business Improvement District board voted unanimously to look into language that would change the code to allow for the offering of samples. Although they remained concerned about the possible downsides, they felt it was important to give businesses another resource at their disposal.
“The city is going to be competing with the (Mall at the University Town Center),” board member Marty Rappaport said. “You want be reasonable, but you don’t want to take the competitiveness away from businesses.”
Contact David Conway at [email protected]