If sampling works, why don’t more retailers do it?
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."
- The Psychology Behind Costco’s Free Samples – The Atlantic
- An empirical investigation of in?store sampling promotions – British Food Journal
- Sampling Delivers Long-Term Sales Lift – PromoWorks
- Sampling Inspires Repeat Purchases – Adweek
- Food Blogger Spends Week Eating Only Free Samples – NBC New York
- The Psychology Behind Costco’s Free Samples – Skin Inc.
- Dine and dash: Is it wrong to eat free samples and leave? – Today
- Sampling strategy used to whet appetite – TimesDaily
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?