Is it safe to bring back food sampling?

Photo: Getty Images/Filipovic018
Jun 01, 2020
Tom Ryan

Costco revealed plans last week to bring back sample stations after suspending the service in early March to counter the spread of the coronavirus.

“We’re going to start doing some things in mid-June on a slow rollout basis in sampling,” said CFO Richard Galanti on the retailer’s third-quarter conference call. “I can’t tell you anymore, but … needless to say, it’s not going to be where you go and just pick up an open sample with your fingers. But sampling — food and nonfood items — are popular.”

The warehouse club will also be bringing back its roadshow events featuring sales rep demonstrations to likewise “get people excited about coming in.”

The pending return of free samples received broad cheers but also some pushback on social media. One commenter stated, “Noooooo! Costco is so much better without people blocking all of the aisles to get those samples.”

Some were curious about how shoppers would be able to eat considering Costco’s mandatory mask policy imposed since May 4.

Other food retailers have likewise suspended food demos and sampling.

According to a March 5 article from Business Insider, Trader Joe’s was planning to shift to serve samples “directly to customers” instead of placing samples on trays. Forks and spoons were to be encouraged and coffee sample cups were to be handed out on request rather than self-serve. Frequent cleaning of surfaces was also to be stressed. Trader Joe’s has since suspended sampling.

Dallas-based Central Market, part of H-E-B, is considering putting samples in individual serving cups with lids, individual bags or blister packs to bring back the practice. Mabrie Jackson, public affairs director for Central Market and H-E-B, told The Dallas Morning News, “Samples are huge for us. Our stores are different because it’s really an experience. Samples are part of delighting the senses.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that there’s no evidence COVID-19 can be transmitted through food and recently updated its guidelines to affirm that the virus “does not spread easily” from “touching surfaces or objects.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see more benefits than risks in bringing back food sampling in stores? What measures do you see as necessary to bring sampling back safely?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"I have no doubt that grocers will find a safe way to bring back this customer favorite."
"In this new normal, I fear that we’re attempting to loosen the protocols too quickly–which may be a dangerous experiment."
"How can sampling be done while all employees and customers are wearing masks? It is too early to encourage people to take off masks and group together."

Join the Discussion!

21 Comments on "Is it safe to bring back food sampling?"

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Shep Hyken

Finding a safe way to bring back food sampling in stores is key. Costco and others are going to figure out the best way to do so. This is just another step to get us back to “normal.”

Dave Bruno

I’m going to defer passing judgment on the Costco plan until I hear more details but, in general, I am advocating that we move slowly and very carefully into programs that introduce more risk to the shopping journey. So I would like to see a limited trial in a limited number of stores in order to evaluate the efficacy and safety compliance before a large-scale rollout. I fear governance of and compliance with safety protocols may be a blind spot lurking around retail’s corner, and adding programs that require touching shared services, removing masks, and congregating make me worry about safety and compliance at every step of the experience.

Richard Hernandez

I think this is a backbone of what customers have come to expect from shopping at Costco but I think it will definitely need to be re-imagined based on the new rules that were formulated for post-pandemic service in the stores. Many other stores will wait and see what Costco does before they get back into sampling.

Georganne Bender

Las Vegas casinos are already brainstorming ways to bring back buffets. At first pass no one thought that would happen.

Sampling has always been a big part of the shopping experience. Individually packaged samples might be the norm for a while, but I have no doubt that grocers will find a safe way to bring back this customer favorite. Crowded aisles and all.

Ken Lonyai

Sampling as it was is a clear risk and these stores know it. If masks are required, pulling masks down and eating in aisles will also be a risk. So it will be interesting to see what they attempt to do.

The really curious part is how things come full circle. The in-store interactive system I developed around a decade ago called iSample was a hygienic self-serve sampling system that provided interactive messaging, surveying, and analytics and would solve all but the eating in-store issues. Sounds like I should blow the dust off of it and…

George Anderson

My first reaction when reading about this was that retailers may figure out how to put samples safely in the hands of shoppers in stores, but won’t they be encouraging shoppers to break their own face masks-required rules if people are lifting up their masks to put food in their mouths.

Harley Feldman

Having food samples always attracts shoppers and provides the suppliers with prospective buyers. Having the ability to safely sample is a positive. There are many ways the samples can be given out safely. Having individual samples handed to each shopper by a gloved sampler will work.

Gene Detroyer

Even pre-COVID-19, watching shoppers take food samples in stores always made me uncomfortable. I would be cautious of any sampling system that purports to control the safety of samples. Simply put, I don’t trust the shoppers.

Mohamed Amer

Introducing sampling for in-store consumption will return slowly. A year or so from now, it may be back to pre-COVID days. In the interim, the rollout will be based on a specific community’s infection data. Any standardized national policy would have to be at the lowest common denominator and that only generates frustrations for all – customers and employees alike.

Doug Garnett
10 months 17 days ago

It is incumbent on stores to give out clear signals about how they are making food sampling safe. It must not be brought back to “just the way it was.”

What things can they do? The list above gives a good start on possible changes. But in everything stores do they need to be aware that they are being watched closely for signs that they understand the new world which has be thrust upon us all. And they need to lead in re-opening safely.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

How can sampling be done while all employees and customers are wearing masks? It is too early to encourage people to take off masks and group together.

Ryan Mathews

Too many unknowns here to make a clear judgement. What will Costco’s — or others’ — sampling plans look like? What will the pandemic look like, i.e., will the virus mutate in a way that will allow it to be foodborne? Will there be another Wave I peak? Will there be a Wave II? What do you do about masks and social distancing? So at this point a good guess would be that risks potentially outweigh rewards. As to what the solution is, you can’t solve a problem you can’t define.

Ralph Jacobson

If we feel it’s safe to sell bulk produce and in-store processed foods (meats, seafood, bakery, etc.)/prepared foods (deli sandwiches, salads, etc.), why is sampling any more of a risk? Do it with the heightened sanitation standards in place.

Laura Davis-Taylor

I’m in your camp Dave. In this new normal, I fear that we’re attempting to loosen the protocols too quickly–which may be a dangerous experiment. Yes, it needs to happen eventually. But can’t we wait until more facts are out there and err towards extreme caution? Having been steeped in this “safety perception” topic, it really is other shoppers that people are wary of–at least the small percentage that don’t care about others. Can we trust all involved to do this safely? Hmmm.

Jason Goldberg

Sampling will be individually pre-packaged/sealed vs a bulk tray. The big question is if we encourage in-store consumption (requiring customers to take off mask) vs. at home sampling. Since a much larger portion of customers are going to be curb-side/e-commerce for the next couple of years, we’ll see a rise in individual packages for at home sampling. You may just find samples in your grocery bag from your curb-side order that are based on what you bought/purchase history.

The bigger open question around food in-store is, will we ever see self-service bulk items (those bins of nuts), olive bars, salad bars, etc… again? I suspect it will be a long while, if ever.

Craig Sundstrom

How can you sample if you’re wearing a mask? This is a perception issue: while this may or may not be “safe” — depending on individual circumstances (and of course as always how we define the term “safe”) — enough people will be uncomfortable that I can’t see the positives outweighing the negatives.

What’s needed is a consensus that the epidemic is under control, something that’s probably still a number of weeks away — what that number is I don’t know — and outside the control of an individual retailer.

John Karolefski

In-store sampling has always been a shopper favorite. But it is too soon to bring back this promotion. First, there is the issue of masks. Are shoppers supposed to remove masks to sample and then put the mask on? Then there is the issue of cautious shoppers wondering if sampling food and drink is safe since the coronavirus has not yet been vanquished. More time has to pass before sampling becomes viable and valuable again.

Brian Cluster

Sampling will be back but it will be in a different form. Who would argue that sampling drives trial and can increase sales of products by hundreds of percentage points to over 1000%? What you may see is more self-contained packages at room temperature. You may also see products that are cooked in trays or another packaging that can be heated. It is just such a great tactic that persuades consumers to purchase, it won’t go away, but it will be decidedly different.

Brian Numainville

While from a retailer perspective bringing back sampling is certainly desirable, I’m not so sure shoppers wholeheartedly agree. Our recent study shows that 59% thought discontinuing product demos/sampling was very effective in improving supermarket safety during this time. Another 33% thought it was somewhat effective. So rushing to have samples available again may not be met with the kind of response a retailer might expect.

Sterling Hawkins

The details matter and obviously we can’t just be passing out open samples to lines of people anymore. Samples are such a key piece of the culture and experience at many of these stores though. I don’t think the question is “if” they should bring them back but “how” they can bring them back, safely.

Warren Thayer

Too soon. Perception is a reality you have to deal with, and too many people perceive sampling to be risky now. I doubt that will change in the near future. Like Ryan, I’d need to see more specific details, but my gut instinct is “no.” Just heard today that the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association is going “from in-person to virtual,” and that’s in OCTOBER. I think Costco will ultimately do a great job at bringing sampling back, when the time is right. Same for HEB.

"I have no doubt that grocers will find a safe way to bring back this customer favorite."
"In this new normal, I fear that we’re attempting to loosen the protocols too quickly–which may be a dangerous experiment."
"How can sampling be done while all employees and customers are wearing masks? It is too early to encourage people to take off masks and group together."

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