December 6, 2021

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The Science of Free Samples: How Freebies Keep Customers Coming Back For More

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Product sampling is the process of giving free samples away to customers. The idea is, once they try the product for free, they’ll be more confident in paying full price for the same item. 

Giving away your product for free can feel a little daunting. After all, someone has to pay for it—and when it comes to free samples, you eat the cost. But don’t let that dissuade you. Free samples have been proven to boost sales by as much as 2,000%.

You can use free product samples to:

  • Introduce your product to new audiences unfamiliar with your brand
  • Foster relationships and inspire loyalty with existing customers
  • Expand shoppers’ knowledge about the products you offer
  • Encourage repeat customers and more sales of new products
  • Earn attention for your brand at or leading up to an event

Those are all great outcomes for your business (and your revenues). Still, they require your initial investment: you need to pony up the product samples.

Before you double down and start giving everything away, it may help to understand why freebies hook customers. And more importantly, you might want to know how giving your product out for free leads to paying customers.

We set out to understand the science behind the power of free samples—and how they can lead to sales for retailers. This guide shares product sampling tips, ideas, and mistakes to avoid. 

Table of Contents

What is product sampling?

Product sampling happens when customers can try miniature versions of your product for free before buying it. 

Take a skin care brand for example. If it gives free samples of its moisturizer away to customers, they can see the positive results of using it before investing their money into the full-price product. 

Marketers can show other people using the product, back up a product with statistics, and collect influencer endorsements. But sometimes, the only way customers will trust what you’re selling is by trying it themselves. Product samples allow them to do that for free. 

The benefits of product sampling

Product sampling can provide numerous benefits for your retail store. Let’s look at some of the different ways offering free samples can impact your business.

Help customers make purchasing decisions

Customers need to experience several things before they decide to make a purchase. First is awareness of a need, desire, or a problem. That happens before they start seeking information about a potential solution.

Then, potential customers consider a solution and its alternatives. A huge amount of information influences a shopper’s decision when making a choice between those alternatives. Price, availability, and personal preferences or biases all play a role.

Social proof is an extremely powerful factor, too (although you can also use the science behind that phenomenon to increase sales with samples).

Providing a product sample cuts through this noise and can help sway a customer to make a favorable purchasing decision. They can try the product for themselves—a direct experience that provides a more rational way to evaluate and understand a solution.

Play on reciprocity

When someone does something nice for you, it creates an urge for you to do something nice in return. This phenomenon is called reciprocity—exactly what happens when your business offers free samples to customers. 

In exchange for receiving something from you, they feel compelled to do something “nice” in return, like purchasing a product as a thank you for the opportunity to try a sample.

Joe Pinsker reported on this psychology and how it impacts shoppers at Costco, a retailer well known for its generous and widely available samples. 

While shoppers might feel obligated to give your brand something once they receive a product sample, Pinsker also noted another pressure that might be at play when you give away things for free: “Samplers with a heightened awareness of the presence of others at the sampling station may feel a level of social ‘pressure’ to make a post-sample purchase.”

In other words: it might be guilt that people feel instead of the desire to reciprocate. Either way, the psychology of offering customers a taste of what you’re selling works in your favor.

Increase brand exposure and affinity 

Samples aren’t just for attracting new customers. Giving existing customers new samples as a special offer helps foster brand loyalty, too.

A study around wine tastings conducted by Cornell University professor Miguel Gomez showed customers who enjoyed a tasting were 93% more likely to spend an extra $10 at the winery. They were also highly likely to buy from the business again in the future.

Granted, product samples played a role in the results, but they didn’t exist in a vacuum. Providing the samples along with great service and a good atmosphere was important—so obviously offering free stuff isn’t quite enough to win over every customer. 

Improve consumer confidence

Selling products in a new or unique market? Sometimes, people need an extra confidence boost before handing over their credit card information in exchange for the item. 

Take it from Maria Karr, the founder of Russian beauty store Rumore Beauty: “Russian beauty is very new to the US consumers, and it’s important for us to give them an opportunity to discover something different and try more products from our assortment.”

“We’ve been offering samples to our customers from day one, and the results have been quite impressive—we’ve seen an uptick in returning clients purchasing full-sized products that they sampled earlier.”

Maria adds that certain product samples improve consumer confidence more than others: “While offering any types of samples is a great way to introduce clients to the products they wouldn’t have tried otherwise, it’s important to recognize that a one-time use sample may not be enough for them to see the benefits, fall in love, and come back to repurchase the product.”

Because of this, Maria’s advice is to “offer a sample that they can use at least two or three times” and “customize your sample offering to fit the consumer profile: what they have purchased in the past, their skin type, or concerns.

“If this is a sample a client can use and it brings them value, it may resonate better and increase their chances of coming back and making a purchase.”

Test new products

While the high street is nowhere near permanently closed, it would be foolish to ignore the people who prefer shopping online—especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. The convenience of browsing the web for a product, evaluating your options, and having it arrive on your doorstep the following day is hard to beat. 

If you’re moving your brick-and-mortar store online, product samples help customers make the switch. Free samples are the biggest incentive for 34% of customers to shop from retailers online. Pack them in your online orders to turn one-off customers into repeat ones. 

Increase sales at point of purchase

When we think of conversion rate tactics to encourage store visitors to purchase, we often think of discounts. Even a 10% discount is hard for customers to resist. But relying on a retail discounting strategy to convert visitors in the long-term can be damaging—especially when they associate your products with heavy discounts.

In fact, one study found that consumer product brands that included free samples had significantly higher purchase rates than those who didn’t. The study concluded that “both product sampling and cashbacks promote incremental sales, but discount coupons may only subsidize purchases that would otherwise be made at full retail prices.”

Free sampling is a great way to remove that association while also encouraging shoppers to try new products (which they’ll later pay full price for).

We offer single-use sample sizes of our most popular products with every order. People try samples and we see an increase in our reorder value, as about 40% of our customers add an additional product they tried as a sample first.

Val Sanford, co-owner and CMO of bluerub

It’s not just the first sale you can encourage with a sample, either. My Supplement Store offers free samples of products in every order. Its marketing manager, Brian Anderson, explains how the product sampling system is gamified to incentivize repeat orders: “The more you spend, the more samples you receive.”

“These free samples are normally from products that work well with what they purchased. This increases the chances of those same customers trying the product and purchasing it on their next order.”

Increase customer loyalty

For many direct-to-consumer brands, repeat customers are the biggest revenue drivers. Some 65% of a company’s business comes from existing customers

So, how does product sampling play a role in customer loyalty? For 95% of customers, trusting a company increases their loyalty to the brand. Free samples play on this. The customer can use, interact, and play around with the product before trusting its worth the retail price. 

Plus, 72% of consumers would stay loyal to a cosmetic brand if the retailer sends free samples prior to purchase. To encourage customer loyalty, free samples beat personalized recommendations, user-generated content, and influencer endorsements—three huge marketing activities many retailers prioritize over sample-giving. 

Types of product samples

Traditional sampling 

Traditional product sampling works by giving shoppers miniature versions of full-size products when they visit your retail store. 

Costco is the most obvious example of traditional product sampling. At each warehouse, customers have the opportunity to taste some of the food products it has for sale. A quarter of them buy food they sample more often than not, with some shoppers visiting the store just for free food. 

The result of Costco’s strategy is impressive. Back in 2014, The Atlantic reported that Costco’s sampling stations increased beer product sales by 71%. Certain products—specifically frozen pizza—skyrocketed 600% after being teased via free samples.

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You don’t need warehouses the size of Costco’s to implement sampling stations, though. In your brick-and-mortar store, you can:

  • Offer product samples to customers at checkout 
  • Set up a sampling station by the door to encourage passersby to drop in 
  • Show retail signage that orders over a certain threshold get free samples

Digital sampling 

Product sampling isn’t limited to physical retail. Ecommerce brands can incentivize online shoppers by providing a sampler pack for free with any online purchase. A handful of sample-size products can encourage repeat buyers to try something new next time.

But sometimes, the biggest challenge of buying online is the fact you can’t touch or interact with the item before buying it. It’s one of the reasons why ecommerce return rates are 11% higher than products bought in-store.

Get a sample product into the hands of a potential online customer, too—even if you can’t shrink your product—by giving the full-size product away as a sample for a limited time.

Take Warby Parker’s free Home Try-On sampling program, for example. The eyewear company allows potential customers to select up to five different frames to physically try on at home.

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Each customer has five days to try on the frames, test them out, and send them back. (If customers fail to send back all the pairs they tried or cause any damage, Warby Parker charges for the incidentals.)

It’s a great way to allow online shoppers to “sample” what you offer via your online store. However, you need to work this into your overall business model to make it feasible and cost-effective—especially if customers fail to return the samples.

If you don’t want to bother with the logistics or the potential costs to your company, consider how you can make a sample of your initial offer to a potential customer. Some brands offer 25% off your first order, free shipping, or small products tossed into an order as a free gift.

Product sampling tips

Ready to offer free samples to your potential customers? Here are six product sampling tips to make sure you’re offering miniature versions that convince customers to buy the product at full price. 

Define your target audience first

Everything you do in your retail store revolves around your target audience. Product sampling is no different. Always consider what your ideal customer wants. Use the answer to decide on the product offered as a free sample. 

Beauty retailer Z Skin Cosmetics, for example, has samples of almost every product it sells. Every customer who places an order gets a free sample included in their package. 

However, its co-founder and CEO, Ryan Zamo, says, “We base which sample to put in with the order based on what they ordered. For example if they ordered our eye cream, we might include a sample of our neck cream—products that we recommend using together.”

When deciding which products to offer, Ryan advises to “make sure it’s relevant to their purchased items.

“Think of it as marketing the item: you want to spend money to attract new buyers that have expressed interest in it. You would be throwing away money if you just targeted people with zero interest in an item. Think of sampling in the same way.” 

💡 PRO TIP: Want to find related products faster? Go to your Shopify admin and create tags to group items by product type, collection, use-case, and more. Tags will help you find sample products to compliment a customer’s purchase at checkout quicker.

Establish clear goals

Regardless of what you’re offering and how, you need a plan for the product samples you want to offer. Consider the following before offering your inventory up for customers without rhyme or reason:

  • What is the purpose of offering free samples? What do you hope to achieve? Knowing this will help inform decisions around what to offer, when, and how long.
  • Who do you want to try your product? The answer will help you understand what you need to do to make sure the product gets to the right shoppers. (Perhaps you want to introduce your product to athletes; in this case, sponsoring a 5k race and handing out your product at the finish line might be appropriate.)
  • How will you measure success? You need a way to track your product sample campaigns and whether or not they helped drive business. That means thinking strategically (and avoiding a shotgun approach to free samples).

📌 GET STARTED: To measure a product sample’s impact on sales, go to Shopify admin and view the Sales by product report. From here, you can see if there’s a spike in a product’s sales after offering free samples.

For many retailers, the aim of product sampling is to engage people who are too nervous to pay full price for an item. The product should be good enough to convince them otherwise. If that’s the case for your store, use sample-to-purchase conversion rates to determine whether your strategy is successful. 

Be mindful of timing

When offering product samples, timing is everything. Make sure you’re giving people enough time to see the benefits of it first-hand. 

For the reminders you send to product samples that encourage them to purchase the full-size item, leave it too long and repurchasing the item will no longer be top of mind. You might have to convince them to buy the full-priced version (or take another free sample) to remind them of how great it was. 

Similarly, push for the sale too quickly and you risk bombarding potential customers with marketing messages before they’ve had a chance to experience the product themselves. 

Look at your sales data to see the average time period between taking a free sample and buying the full-priced version. If you’re offering a sample size of your essential oils, for example, you might find that people repurchase two weeks later when they’ve run out. A few days before that two-week trial period is the perfect time to send a purchase reminder.

Be strategic about sampling location

The layout of your retail store has a major impact on the way shoppers interact with your free samples. 

Avoid the back of your store or places where very few shoppers visit. Instead, position your sampling station in a place that’s visible to in-store shoppers and passersby, such as: 

  • By the entrance, to attract people as they first enter the store.
  • In the window, to encourage passersby to drop in and claim a free sample, even if they didn’t intend on visiting.
  • At the checkout desk, to nudge those making a purchase to take a free sample of another item they’ll later return to buy. 

If you’re operating a larger store, take a page from Costco’s book and have sampling stations dotted around the most popular routes. A station at the halfway point of their shopping route could entertain shoppers mid-shop. 

Leverage social media

Anything we get for free is a bonus—a value add you didn’t expect but appreciate. When we’re positively surprised, we’re more inclined to share our appreciation with friends. 

Despite this natural inclination, make it obvious that you’d appreciate a positive tweet or Instagram Story in exchange for your free product. (This goes back to the reciprocity we mentioned earlier.) 

You’ll raise brand awareness, build trust with new audiences via an endorsement from someone they trust, and convince them to take a free sample, since there’s nothing to lose. Talk about getting your foot in the door with new customers. 

Solicit feedback

Even if you don’t turn samplers into paying customers, offering free samples is a superb way to gather feedback from those who’ve tried a miniature version of your product.

A few days after your reminder email, send a follow-up email asking why they didn’t purchase the full-size item. Whether it was too expensive, they didn’t see results, or they haven’t had time to pick-up the item in-store, knowing this can help you fine-tune your product sampling campaigns going forward. 

Common product sampling mistakes

You’re convinced: you want to use samples to attract new customers, introduce different audiences to your product, and entice existing shoppers to buy more. But before you allow your customers to sample everything in the store, know that offering too much can backfire.

Offering too many samples

When people are faced with just one or a handful of choices, making a selection feels manageable. If you’re not forcing customers to choose, but allowing them to sample multiple products, a small selection feels reasonable and comfortable.

But when you start adding in more and more choices, our ability to simply pick one declines. Eventually, we reach a point where we make no decision at all because of our inability to handle how overwhelmed we feel by all the choices. It’s a psychological phenomenon called the paradox of choice.

Stick to offering one sample or predetermined selection. Removing the obstacle of too much choice will make customers more likely to take you up on the offer—and purchase the full-price item when they realize how good it is. 

Not including a clear next step

Think of your free product samples as the first step of the purchase process. People receive the free sample, enjoy it, and want to purchase the full-price version. But when they run out of the free sample, reordering falls to the bottom of their priority list. 

A cardinal sin of product sampling is forgetting to include a next step for samplers and leaving the decision of whether they visit your website and purchase the full price version in their hands. 

Remove this opportunity from your strategy by entering all product samplers into an email marketing sequence. If you’re offering toothpaste samples, for example, give shoppers seven days to try the product. Once those seven days are up, send an email reminding them to purchase the full-size version.

Only offering in-person samples

We’ve touched on the fact that product samples don’t have to be limited to brick-and-mortar stores. Ecommerce businesses can offer free samples to shoppers, helping them overcome a major challenge of buying online: not being able to interact with the product before paying full price for it. 

At worst, online shoppers try the product by purchasing it and later returning it. The 30-day money-back guarantee many brands offer incentivizes this shopping habit, making ecommerce returns a huge logistical (and financial) nightmare for retailers.

However, offering free product samples mitigates this behavior. Online shoppers are incentivized to make an order if they can test other products for free. Plus, return rates on those previously sampled products are much lower. The shopper already knows the product they’re about to buy is the right one for them.

PRO TIP: If your ecommerce store is powered by Shopify, use the Product Samples app to offer samples to online shoppers without the logistical headaches. If people can only qualify for these free samples when ordering full-priced products, you can incentivize the purchase and absorb shipping costs for the sample.

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Not considering the cost impact

Free product giveaways come at a cost. When deciding whether to offer product samples to your customers, consider the price of the actual sample and any logistical fees you’ll pay to deliver it—such as posting (or returns if you’re following Warby Parker’s try-at-home method.)

Kenko Tea is a Japanese matcha tea brand that offers 30 gram sample bags to its wholesale customers. Director Sam Speller says one of its biggest product sampling mistakes was “not getting products in a smaller sample size that you can give out in a cost effective manner. 

“For years, we only offered our wholesale offering with fairly strict minimum orders and didn’t have smaller sample sizes. I think this was a mistake.”

For this reason, Sam recommends, “When working with your suppliers for consumable products, see if you can get smaller sample sizes for your existing products so you can give out samples more freely to keep expenses down.”

Product sampling ideas

A successful product sampling strategy has many moving parts. But sometimes, a free version of a product isn’t as big of a deal for potential customers—especially if the full-sized version is affordable. For some shoppers, there’s not much sense in taking a free sample if they can spend $2.99 for a bigger version. 

If that’s the case for products being sold in your store, here are three bonus product sampling ideas to convince shoppers to take a free sample.

Include sampling in loyalty programs

Earlier, we mentioned that product samples have a domino effect on customer loyalty. Those repeat customers are sources of consistent revenue for many retailers. So, why not take that one step further and use small samples as an incentive to join a loyalty program?

Some direct-to-consumer brands base their entire business model on this strategy. Monthly subscription boxes by Birchbox and Glossybox contain free miniature versions of popular beauty products. The contents of each box changes monthly so customers are incentivized to keep their subscription. 

Partner with charities

While free products can be enticing, not everyone wants more stuff. Younger generations, especially Gen Z and millennials, prefer experiences over materialistic things. Work that into your product sampling strategy by partnering with charities.

If you’re a healthy beverage brand, for example, consider partnering with children’s health charities, like the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Have the charity give a free can of pop to anyone who donates to the nonprofit as a product sample. 

Not only do you support the cause by driving your soon-to-be-customers to donate, but you get to reach a new audience with similar interests and motivations as your target market.

Leverage product sampling for customer reviews

How much more likely are you to purchase a product that someone unbiased can vouch for? Chances are, your answer is “very likely.” 

The vast majority (90%) of consumers read online reviews before visiting a retail store. However, collecting those reviews is hard for retailers. Many forget to ask for them altogether.

Treat product samples as a way to collect those customer reviews easily. It appeals to reciprocity: the idea that if you offer a free sample of your product to someone, they’re likely to do something in return—such as write a review. 

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Z Skin Cosmetics customers leave glowing reviews after discovering its skin care products through free samples.

Start offering free samples at your store

Now that you’ve seen some examples of free samples in action, you can make choices about whether this marketing strategy is right for your business.

Remember to match the product samples with items previously purchased, position the sampling station in a high-traffic area of your store, and schedule reminders for customers to purchase the full-sized (and full-priced) versions once the sample runs out. 

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