Bill Myers arrives early Friday morning to set up his display at Vons store No. 72 in Ventura. Spotting a pile of cardboard cartons of candy bars, he gets right to work. Inside, between the bakery section and the Super Express Check Out lane, Myers creates a work area. He lays a white plastic table-top across a shopping cart.
"This is the first time I've used one of these," he says seriously. Next he tapes a Hershey's poster in front of the cart and clips a plastic trash bag alongside for candy wrappers. He's ready.
Peering over his gold wire-rim spectacles, Myers puts on a maroon apron and ties it securely behind his back. There, among mountains of Brach's Halloween candy, against the yellow, orange and chocolate backdrop of Scary Cats Mellocreme Candies and Peanut Butter Kisses, Bill Myers of Camarillo becomes Super Demo Man, demonstrating Hershey's RSVP chocolate bars.
Of the hundreds of people in Ventura County employed full or part time as "demo people" who give away sample food or products in grocery stores, about 90% are senior citizens, according to supervisors who hire them. They've discovered the benefits of demo work, while employers have long recognized that seniors are experienced, reliable workers.
"Seniors do a great job. They know how to get along with people, and they have a great attitude," said John Austin, manager of Gelson's market in Westlake Village.
At 71, Myers is a retired wholesale hardware salesman who began selling magazines door-to-door at age 9. "Whether you're selling real estate or food, it makes no difference. The secret of selling is to have a thorough knowledge of the product and point out its features," Myers said. "But I think you sell yourself first."
He enjoys the work but finds the jobs involving cooking too messy. Others, including Charlotte Lotto of Westlake Village, prefer the cooking displays because they pay more. Lotto, who will turn 84 next week, began demo work 14 years ago after deciding that "too much golf was boring."
Josephine Turner, who is "past 60 and legal," said she likes to "make my bingo money" during free time on weekends.
Getting the public to try the product is part of the game. According to Josephine Turner, "If the kids like it, the folks usually buy it." But demo policy requires parental permission for a child to sample food in case there is a dietary restriction or allergy.
Demonstrators generally earn $35 for working 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. with half an hour for lunch. People who cook and supply a wok or an electric skillet earn $40 to $45. Those who bring a small microwave oven can earn $50.
For some, being a product demonstrator means a return to the work force after a long absence or getting hired for the first time.
Before losing her husband, Millie Russell hadn't worked outside the home for more than 30 years. Now in her early 70s, Russell became a demo person because "everything was going up except my income."
"We use a lot of senior people who haven't worked before," said Dale Snipes, a supervisor for Demo Deluxe, one of the companies that hires demonstrators.
Seventy-eight-year-old Sabina Mitchell, a resident of Simi Valley, said she mentioned to a Demo Deluxe supervisor that she used to set up cookware displays in department stores. "My phone was ringing when I walked in the house," Mitchell said.
The demo subculture is a cooperative network of store managers, demonstration supervisors and demonstration people. Ultimately store managers decide who may work in their stores, based upon professional conduct and appearance. But good demo people are not easy to find.
"There are never enough reliable people, and senior citizens are my first choice," said Robin Christman, marketing supervisor for SPI Inc., another company that hires people to do product demonstrations.
Lisa Miranda, regional director of KDS, the largest and oldest demo company operating in the county, is very pleased with her senior demo battalion.
"The senior citizens are excellent. I think it's good for the seniors because they feel needed--and they are," Miranda said. "If it weren't for them, the demo companies wouldn't be as good as they are."
Senior citizens seeking demo work can call: KDS, (800) 241-7733; Demo Deluxe, 494-7114; Act Now, (800) 523-8009; Sunshine Promotions Inc., SPI, 984-2356; Coates Demonstrating Service Inc., (800) 545-2388; Demos Unlimited, (818) 706-3619.