The Power of Freebies: Why Companies Pay to Give Free Samples to Supermarket Customers

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Grocery stores like free sample giveaways because they get shoppers excited, feeling like they’re getting in on something exclusive and special. Shoppers like free samples for the reasons just mentioned, and also because, well, they don’t cost anything. As for the companies actually giving away the samples? They really like how free samples help them connect with customers—so much so that they’re willing to pay supermarkets and warehouse clubs just for the right to give away stuff on the premises.

The Street explains how companies such as Kraft, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever typically shell out a couple hundred bucks a day to set up a free sample stand inside a supermarket. The companies giving out the samples also have to eat (so to speak) the price of the giveaways. But even so, these costs are tiny in the grand scheme of what’s being accomplished via free samples:

If that seems a bit steep, keep in mind that getting a customer to even try a product is the biggest part of the battle — with companies spending more than $94 billion in advertising alone last year just to get people to consider a product they may never have sampled, according to Kantar Media. With the free sample, a company gets the customer to try a product without putting up a price barrier, while the customer gets a “free” item while not having to gamble a portion of that week’s grocery bill on a product they may not even like.

In terms of reaching consumers, free samples are often much more powerful, and much cheaper than traditional advertising.

Once you’ve had your free sample, it’s up to you to figure out if this is a product you’d choose to buy if it wasn’t part of some exciting giveaway. Sometimes, consumers come to their decisions to buy or not based on factors other than the taste, quality, and price. Sometimes, they decide to buy simply because they’ve gotten a freebie and, consciously or not, somehow feel obligated to pay the company back.

In a previous post about the mind games involved in holiday shopping, researchers explained how shoppers who’ve received freebies are more likely to buy the products given away, and even to become loyal customers down the line. Psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne wrote:

Why does this work? You’ve been given something, seemingly for nothing, and now you feel obligated to reciprocate by buying the item.

Should you feel obligated to the company giving away stuff? Of course not. If the person working the giveaway stand is doing his job right, he’ll thank any customers who stop by and take advantage of the free samples—and for good reason. The freebies are probably saving the company millions that might otherwise be spent on less-effective marketing and advertising schemes.

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