If sampling works, why don’t more retailers do it?

Oct 08, 2014

It’s not hard to learn about examples of abuse at stores offering free samples.

Stories abound across the internet of people hitting numerous demo stations at Costco to fill up during their lunch hours. Some brag about saving a few meals a week and hundreds of dollars over the year by "grazing" at free sample counters. Food and personal finance bloggers have promoted the practice as a money saver.

It’s rare to see food freebies at many traditional grocers and at Walmart and Target. But Costco and its close competitors, Sam’s Club and B.J.’s Wholesale Club, offer extensive free food sampling. To a more limited degree, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, HEB and Publix, as well as specialty boutiques such as Stew Leonards, also make free samples a part of their shopping experience.

Although not extensively documented, a few studies have also attested to their effectiveness.

Research conducted in 2009 by Knowledge Networks-PDI on behalf of the marketing services company PromoWorks found that sampling programs drove a 475 percent sales lift the day of the event compared to non-sampled households. Moreover, the study found the boost for the sampled product as well as its parent brand lasted long afterward. Over the 20 weeks post-event, average cumulative first repeat purchases of sampled products and their parent brands were 11 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

An article that came out last week in The Atlantic, "The Psychology Behind Costco’s Free Samples," also detailed the numerous side benefits. These include adding a "fun" element to the shopping experience as well as several psychological drivers that encourage post-sampling purchases.

According to a 2011 study in the British Food Journal, shoppers often subconsciously feel a duty to make a purchase of an item after sampling, either because of social pressures in the presence of other samplers or because they feel they owe something to the server. In the same way, free sampling often leads to extra buys across the store because shoppers have a subconscious gratitude for the freebies provided by the store.

"Reciprocity is a very, very strong instinct," behavioral economist Dan Ariely told The Atlantic. "If somebody does something for you … you really feel a rather surprisingly strong obligation to do something back for them."

Are the benefits of free sampling more applicable to warehouse clubs and grocery boutiques than traditional grocers and larger discounters? Does it make sense that the psychological effects of free sampling spreads to unrelated post-sampling event purchases?

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13 Comments on "If sampling works, why don’t more retailers do it?"

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Dr. Stephen Needel

The effects of sampling should be to generate a trial of a product shoppers aren’t familiar with. I’m guessing that sampling Cheez Whiz is going to be less likely than sampling Plochman’s Stone Ground Mustard—everyone knows the former, much fewer the latter. There’s no reason why sampling shouldn’t be effective in any outlet. As mentioned, Publix does this all the time and with good success.

Warren Thayer

A key factor, according to vendors I speak with, is the high expense because so many retailers have turned demos into profit centers. These retailers charge high fees and insist on using specific demo companies. And, the slapdash way that many of these demos turn out irritates hell out of vendors. I’d suspect that clubs and grocery boutiques go about things quite differently than many mainstream supermarkets. Finally, some of the people responsible for demos on the vendor side look at the high cost and expect ROI for each and every demo. But, done right, sampling works and can be cost-effective.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

There does not appear to be any data to support the perception that sampling works best only in non-traditional grocers. The key to any sampling program is its presentation and execution. It’s better not to sample than to do it poorly. Many traditional grocers still view sampling as a source of promotional income rather than a way to create the unique, fun experience described in the article. As a result, the sampling experience is often done without the proper training and accompanying theater. Publix’ Aprons program is a good example of sampling by a knowledgeable associate in an attractive presentation setting.

If done properly it creates a point of differentiation as well as the noted psychological effects.

Ken Lonyai

The benefits can be the same anywhere, but there is a little more to it than free food, or literally enabling consumers to experience the product to determine likes or dislikes.

Sampling done well is a social interaction that breaks down the barrier between purveyor and customer and momentarily suspends the “put it in your cart and pay for it” relationship. It’s a bit of fun, a bit of a diversion and a chance to do exploration. So it works best in an environment that’s conducive to promoting fun and discovery. Just plopping a lone taste station in an average supermarket with no “environmental” support is more likely to result in a free food grab than relationship building or growing the shopper’s basket size.

Adrian Weidmann

Merchants since the dawn of civilization have discovered and learned the commercial value of sampling their wares. The challenge of sampling is execution. It’s a lot easier to slap on a discount coupon in an attempt to tempt a shopper to buy a new product. Sampling requires human time and commitment to execute. Most brands and/or retailers are seeking a much quicker and easier ROI. The fact that there are “several psychological drivers that encourage post-sampling purchases” in addition to the shopping experience factor should in turn encourage more use of this practice. Just like any other marketing and merchandising campaign, sampling campaigns should be designed and implemented with discipline and precision.

Ben Ball

Sampling works in most locations—provided you have a good product.

Sampling is done in far fewer locations—primarily for the reasons cited by Warren Thayer.

Gene Hoffman
Gene Hoffman
3 years 11 days ago

Several comments above say sampling is effective if done right, but the definition of right is not clearly identified.

The implied psychological effects do not seem to register with many people. I question if those benefits spread profitably to unrelated post-sampling event purchases. My observations indicate that too many consumers sample because it’s available so they have a free lunch or just pig out and move on.

Ralph Jacobson

Since I started in the grocery biz in the ’70s, I have been a huge advocate of sampling. Additionally, when I was a store manager, I would take it one step further and hold cooking classes on the sales floor to drive excitement, and I would give samples to passersby. People are always reluctant to spend hard-earned money on a product that they have never tried and/or are unsure of how to prepare when they get it home. You have to face that apprehension head-on with the offer of a free sample. CPG brands are only too anxious to have their products highlighted in-store, so there should be little or no expense to the retailer.

I agree with the studies that encourage this practice. It offers a chance for differentiation for the retailer, also.

George-Marie Glover
George-Marie Glover
3 years 11 days ago

Sampling is an effective tool, especially for new, seasonal or promotional items.

Being consistent helps where you have regular tasting stations at regular times. Having the right personnel offer samples is also important—someone who enjoys interacting with people and can pitch the product in an a conversational way. Just leaving trays that people can serve themselves won’t be as effective. Worse yet is a server who doesn’t smile or engage customers.

Other things that may help make the experience enjoyable are providing recipe cards, making sure product is available at the tasting station for quick pick-up, and providing coupons or discounts.

I must admit that I have been prompted to purchase items that I have tasted and been thankful for it.

Lee Kent

Sampling can work anywhere. It just needs to be done right. I look at sampling at say, Costco, as a plus to shopping there. I am always game to try new things, because aren’t we always on the lookout for some changes to our normal food routines? Yes, foods become routine just like everything else.

Sampling adds another dimension to the shopping experience and, of course, appeals to customer currency, my favorite topic. Offer a sample and you buy the customer’s attention, maybe interaction too, and maybe, just maybe, a purchase of that product or something else. A great first step, for my two cents!

vic gallese
3 years 11 days ago

I believe the benefits of sampling extend to all of the formats mentioned. Having said that, there appears to be a lack of sound data to prove or disapprove the theory and, therefore, most prudent retailers will shy away, waiting to become fast followers.

The seemingly successful retailers adopting sampling have created a strategy around it where they have become a destination because of it. The best ones also get their vendors to participate. This creates more store visits and does, in fact, extend the purchase beyond the sampled product.

What probably will not prove an ROI is the one-off sampling effort where space, labor and product are provided by the retailer.

Shep Hyken

The law of reciprocity says, “The more you give, the more you get.” The data seems to prove it works in retail stores. Sure, people graze for free food, but they are also buying other items while there. And if the person giving away the samples is actually a bit of a salesperson, the sales of the sample items increase dramatically.

Also, the food manufacturers that provide the samples realize that the sale may not be immediate. The consumer may try the sample at Costco and then later purchase from their neighborhood grocery store. It’s all part of their brand identity and awareness efforts.

Tony Orlando

I know I’m late on this topic, but controlled sampling is how we do it. We don’t just lay out a tray on top of the deli and let people eat, as this does not work and it is unsanitary. We control the sampling by asking each customer if they want to try one of our new creations, and then we offer it up to them, which in turn ends up getting us a sale. Real simple and real effective, and always have a smiling face behind the effort.


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