Business Marketing

The psychology of free samples: how Costco improved sales by 2,000%

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In general, people love anything free: from free WiFi to free books and everything in between,  nothing beats free. However, there seems to be something especially magical about free food; from retail chains to Realtors with open house weekends, nothing drives interest better than the lure of free food.

No other retail chain is more closely associated with free sample offerings than Costco, but why? In some cases, the lure of free samples have boosted sales as much as 2,000%, but it is not just about the monetary factor.

Free samples can influence a shopper’s decision to buy. Many times people will buy something they never intended to, simply because they were offered a free sample. This is not just because we all have a weakness for frozen pizza; as Joe Pinsker at The Atlantic details, there are psychological factors at play whenever we indulge in the free sampling arena.

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On a subconscious level when you’re given something free, from pizza to chocolate,you may feel obliged to buy something. As Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University states, “reciprocity is a very, very, strong instinct; if someone does something for you (like hooking you up with the freebies) you really feel a rather surprisingly strong obligation to do something back for them.”

The dirtiest of secrets: activating hidden cravings

A free sample can also activate a craving you didn’t even realize you had. If you’re given a piece of chocolate you may suddenly want to buy M&Ms: Ariely believes, “what samples do is they give you a particular desire for something, if I gave you a tiny bit of chocolate all of a sudden it would remind you about the exact taste of chocolate and would increase your craving.” What retailers like Costco are doing by offering free samples is stimulation your mental and physical needs to buy a particular, or similar product.

Pinsker cites a study done in the UK, in 2011, which found that you are more likely to buy when surrounded by other people, like other samplers. Being surrounded by other samplers, or customers, creates a situation where “samplers with a heightened awareness of the presence of others at the sampling station may be a level of social ‘pressure’ to make a post-sample purchase.” 

By offering multiple sample throughout the store, Costco, and similar retailers, are creating an environment where freebie hunters feel psychologically obliged to buy something, in order to repay the kindness of being offered a freebie.

Why Costco is on the leading edge

It’s not just about the sampling though, it is also about creating the Costco brand. Other stores give out samples, but few are linked to the notion as closely as Costco. Sampling has become something fun that keeps bringing shoppers back to Costco. Much like shoppers enjoy inexpensive hotdogs and pizza during their shopping trips; they’ve also come to associate free samples with shopping at Costco.

And perhaps this is why: free samples are a type of reward for shopping there, which then stimulated the need to buy in order to repay said freebie, and it becomes a cycle of wanting to experience the freebie, but feeling obligated to purchase: all-in-all a pretty good way to continually push different products.

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  1. Pingback: Why free samples end up costing you money | Brain Fodder

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