Harnessing the Power of Free Samples

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By: Christine Hill


Free samples! We all love them. Something about “free” just makes things more delicious, more fun, more interesting. Psychologically, we all see the direct appeal of free samples. But how well do they actually work for businesses?

Pretty darn well, if Costco is any model. The numbers are amazing. Free samples drive a 300% increase in sales on wine, a 500% increase for items like lipstick and mascara, and a whopping 600% increase for cheese and pizza.

That’s astronomical! To be honest, until I started doing research for this topic, I thought that the sole advantage to free samples was the increased foot traffic and buzz. It’s not that those aren’t valuable in and of themselves, but the powerful increase in revenue floored me. It’s not just Costco, either. Have you ever gone to 7-11 on July 11th in order to be a part of its 7/11 slurpee giveaway? Again, I thought the primary objective of that was to increase foot traffic, since 7-11 couldn’t possibly be making money by giving so much away, right? Wrong. 7/11 day sees an increase in Slurpee sales (that’s right, slurpees that people are paying for) by 38%.

Those numbers don’t even calculate the long-term, far-reaching benefits of free-sample-marketing. Free samples directly increase revenue, get the word out about our product (often more effectively, and at less cost than a marketing campaign), build a loyal customer base, and even increase the perceived value of your product.

So how does it work?

Salesman Offering Cheese Samples To Customers In Shop

Free Samples Display and Create Value


It’s impossible to know exactly how a food tastes until you put it in your mouth and taste it. That’s why, for such a long time, food sales have dominated the field of free samples. However, it applies for more than food. Samples can demonstrate texture, durability, usefulness, and efficacy of a product. Samples should display the value and quality of an item that shoppers wouldn’t otherwise experience without purchasing. So, is your product special because you feel extraordinary health benefits after a few weeks of use? Is it amazingly soft and comfortable? Does it answer your customer’s daily convenience needs? Free samples might be the perfect way to demonstrate that. Savvy shoppers don’t want to spend money on a risk, but once they see true quality, they’re willing to invest in it.

Studies have found that when consumers get something as a freebie, they’re willing to pay more for it later. This could be because they’ve already confirmed that they like it. But another reason is that  when something is free, we have no price by which to determine value. Thus, we look for other cues, and judge a product solely based on what we experience. So, free samples don’t just display your value, but they can also increase perceived value.


Samples Activate the Law of Reciprocity


Reciprocity is a huge social influencer. It drives behavior even when we don’t notice it. When we receive something, we want to return something of equal value. When we’re not paying for whatever we just received, we seek out different ways to repay. At a sample table, this might be buying the product, and thus supporting the company and individual giving out free samples. Other times, we might repay a business through faithful brand loyalty, or a motivation to help the product along by spreading the word.

Two beautiful girls shopping in a clothes shop.

Samples Create Their Own Buzz


Speaking of spreading the word, freebies have amazing power to create buzz. When something is free, people do the marketing themselves, and in an era of social media marketing, that is gold. Have you ever ordered a pizza, and then, due to an error, gotten the pizza for free? When that happens to me, I make sure that everyone knows! Free things create a good day out of nothing. They create an experience, and fun that you want to share.

Free samples also create a big impression in our memory. They allow customers to experience the product with more senses than the standard sight, or perhaps sound. When we have a tangible product with which we’ve had an experience or an emotion attached, we’re much more likely to remember it, and bring it up in conversation later.

Free samples also grant you access to positive relationships with your most valuable tool: trendsetters and early adopters. In Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, he points out that early adopters have amazing clout in determining whether a product swims or sinks. Early adopters have influence with a lot of people who are waiting to see whether a product is worth paying for. Building trust and loyalty with those first few people is worth more than any marketing campaign you can create.


Maximizing the Power of Samples in Your Business


So, now that you understand the power that free samples can have, how can you maximize this principle in your own business?

  • Give away smaller versions of something that people will then want to buy.
  • Wherever possible, enable a person-to-person interaction between your company and your customer. This increases feelings of reciprocity.
  • Provide samples of a product with mass appeal. This maximizes the shareability and buzz.
  • Turn samples into an opportunity to receive direct feedback. Ask for immediate reviews and feedback, and look at what people are saying about you online.

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