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food sampling techniques — and why they work

    Toothpicks, mini cups, tiny packaging, and more converge in the world of food sampling. The food and beverage industries have made sampling an integral part of their marketing strategies for years, and the tradition lives on, though in more non-traditional ways. There are a few psychological reasons why any one of these four sampling still works.

    Traditional retail

    As the most visible avenue for free sampling, traditional retail stores, particularly retailers like Sam’s Club and Costco, offer samples paid for by food manufacturers. According, to TheStreet, to have their products featured at a series of Wal-Mart locations might cost $200 to $240 per store.

    If they go through a second-party firm, such as Club Demonstration Services, which works with Costco locations in 35 states, companies might pay an entry-level buy-in rate of $150 for one staffer for the cart and 6.5 hours of service. Companies might also incur an additional $7.50 charge for sampling accessories, such as toothpicks, skewers, cups, spoons, plates, etc.

    A more novel take on retail food samples is Portland’s SamplingLab, which is a store dedicated to offering food and beverage companies the opportunity to receive feedback from customers without having to host an official corporate focus group. At the store, consumers receive free samples in exchange for their answers to an online questionnaire about the product.

    Food sampling at retail stores is the most recognizable form of sampling for consumers, and it encourages them to taste the foods just steps away from the product and cash register to secure fast and easy sales.

    From the company

    Sometimes consumers contact a company requesting samples, and sometimes those companies will oblige.

    By offering free samples directly, a company exudes a sense of confidence and transparency. This is attractive to today’s consumers, who want to know what is in their food, and with consumers having information and a sample in hand, that can help drive sales.

    Delivery and subscriptions

    As food and grocery delivery become more common with the food industry’s adoption of e-commerce, sampling has made its way from food companies to consumers’ doorsteps as well. Last month, Bloomberg reported that Kellogg Co. could be an upcoming subscription snack provider while General Mills Inc. exits the same market by shutting down its subscription snack service, Nibblr.

    With delivery and paid subscription services, food companies large and small have the opportunity to get products out by utilizing e-commerce, a shopping channel that is surging in popularity among today’s consumers.


    Some companies utilize technology to encourage consumers to sample. For Doritos, a scannable chip — the kind someone eats, not uses in a computer — ensures consumers actually buy, and likely taste, the product to participate in a mobile experience once they’ve scanned the chip.

    Technology offers companies novel ways to entice tech-savvy consumers, particularly millennials, to test products via sampling methods that stand out from traditional sampling stands, particularly at industry events.

    Why sampling works

    With so many options available to connect consumers with free samples, sampling seems to be a solid strategy for food companies, big and small. According to TIME, “In terms of reaching consumers, free samples are often much more powerful, and much cheaper than traditional advertising.” Here are a few reasons why sampling works.

    Breaks down price barrier

    Sometimes the only thing standing between a consumer and a product is a price point, which can be subjectively high or low based on a consumers’ budget. Offering a free sample means consumers can try products that are outside their budget — products they otherwise might have never tried.

    No strings attached

    When consumers have access to free samples, they don’t have to commit to a purchase. Even if the price point is reasonable and within a consumer’s budget, that consumer may still not want to buy the product just to try it for the first time and risk not liking it.

    Taste and quality

    Sometimes the best marketing for a food product is simply taste and quality. But without free samples to break down some of these barriers between consumers and products, that key marketing strategy might never have a chance to draw consumers into something they’ve never tried before. Regardless of traditional marketing like ads or packaging, consumers may not always be convinced they will like a product, even if it is a type of food they enjoy, until they taste it.


    Though receiving free samples generally means no strings attached for consumers, whether consciously or subconsciously, sometimes consumers will end up buying the product because they feel obligated to after getting something for free, according to TIME.

    Sampling was big when Procter & Gamble popularized the focus group in the mid-20th century, and it’s no less big now. Consumers love getting things for free, so food companies capitalize on both by continuing to bring samples to the masses, whether through traditional retail or a more innovative route.