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

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Get your free samples!

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.

Jennifer Walpole is a Senior Staff Writer at The American Genius and holds a Master's degree in English from the University of Oklahoma. She is a science fiction fanatic and enjoys writing way more than she should. She dreams of being a screenwriter and seeing her work on the big screen in Hollywood one day.

Business Marketing

Ten podcasts that every business owner should hear

(MARKETING) If you’re a business and want to learn something, give one of (or all of) these ten podcasts a listen.

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So many choices, so little time

As podcasts grow more and more popular, it has become increasingly difficult to sort through the sea of excellent options out there.

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From interviews with business leaders to industry specific advice from experts, podcasts are an incredible free and convenient way to get a small dose of inspiration and knowledge.

Business podcasts for your listening enojoyment

This short list offers just a taste of the myriad of business podcasts available. Whether you’re an aspiring entrepreneur looking for some tips on breaking into a new industry or a seasoned vet hoping to get some new inspiration, we hope you’ll find something here worth listening to.

How I Built This, hosted by Guy Raz.

Podcast fans will recognize Guy Raz’s name (and voice) from TED Radio Hour. While that show can be a great source of inspiration for businesses, one of the most consistently inspiring shows is his new project that shares stories and insight from some of the biggest business leaders in the world. In just four months, Guy has talked to everyone from Richard Branson and Mark Cuban to L.A. Reid and Suroosh Alvi. While there are plenty of excellent interview-driven shows with entrepreneurs, if you want to hear about the world’s best known companies, this is your best bet.

The Art of Charm, hosted by Jordan and AJ Harbinger.

The Art of Charm is a business podcast by definition, but the advice it provides will definitely help you in other parts of your day-to-day life as well. With over three million listens a month, the incredibly populat show provides advice, strategies and insight into how to network effectively and advance your career and personal life.

StartUp, hosted by Alex Blumberg and Lisa Chow.

If you’re an entrepreneur, there is no excuse not to be listening to StartUp, the award-winning business podcast from Gimlet Media. The show’s talented hosts come from incredible radio shows like Planet Money and This American Life and bring a top-notch level of storytelling to the show, which provides behind the scenes looks at what it is actually like to start a company. Now on the fourth season, StartUp is one of those business podcasts that even people not interested in business will get a kick out of.

The Whole Whale Podcast, hosted by George Weiner.

One of the best things about podcasts is the wide variety of niche shows available that go in-depth into fascinating topics. One of those shows is the Whole Whale Podcast, which shares stories about data and technology in the non-profit sector. You’ll get detailed analysis, expert knowledge and can hear from a long list of social impact leaders from Greenpeace, Change.org, Kiva, Teach For America and more.

Social Pros Podcast, hosted by Jay Baer and Adam Brown.

Navigating the surplus of social media guides online can be a nightmare, so look no further thna Social Pros. Recent episodes talk about reaching college students on social media, the rise of messaging apps, and making better video content for Facebook. Plus, there are great case-studies with companies doing social right, like Kellogg’s, Coca Cola and Lenscrafters.

Entrepreneur on Fire, hosted by John Lee Dumas.

One of the original entrepreneurship shows, Entrepreneur on Fire has logged over 1,500 episodes with successful business leaders sharing tips, lessons and advice learned from their worst entrepreneurial moments. Sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, always inspiring, this show is sure to have at least one interview with someone you can learn from.

The $100 MBA, hosted by Omar Zenhom.

Think of The $100 MBA as a full-fledged business program in snack-sized portions. The daily ten minute business lessons are based on real world applications and cover everything from marketing to techology and more. Cue this show up on your commute to or from work and watch your knowledge grow.

This Week in Startups, hosted by Jason Calacanis.

This is your audio version of TechCrunch, Gizmodo or dare we say The American Genius. Each week, a guest entrepreneur joins the show to talk about what is happening in tech right now. You’ll get news about companies with buzz, updates on big tech news and even some insider gossip.

The Side Hustle Show, hosted by Nick Loper.

This is the show if you want answers for the big question so many entrepreneurs face. How do I turn my part-time hustle into a real job? Featuring topics such as passive income ideas, niche sites, and self-publishing, host Nick Loper is upfront and honest about the tough world of side hustles. The show features actionable tips and an engaging energy, and may just be that final push you need to grow your gig.

Back To Work, hosted by Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin.
Focused on the basics that you don’t think about, Back To Work looks deep into our working lives by analyzing things like workflow, email habits and personal motivation. Somewhere between self-help and business advice, Back To Work takes on a new topic relating to productivity each week.

#LearnSomething

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Business Marketing

Society has changed – no one wants help in a store anymore

(CUSTOMER SERVICE) Times are changing in the retail environment: a once customer-service driven experience is evolving into a minimalistic customer service approach.

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Once upon a time, good retail management meant good customer service skills – asking customers if they needed assistance, helping them decide what looked best on them, and politely stalking customers to insure a sale was completed.

As technology evolves and become more prevalent and pervasive in our lives, these skills are no longer needed or wanted. A new study suggest that shoppers want to be left alone while browsing in stores, rather than be stalked, questioned, and coaxed into buying items they may not explicitly want due to persistent pressure from sales associates.

An HRC survey found that a whopping 95% of shoppers would prefer to be left completely alone while navigating the retail environment, rather than shopping under a constant barrage of questions: “Can I help you find anything?” “How are you today?” “What brought you in?” and the seemingly endless stream of inquiries, not to mention the sales pressure from those employees working on commission, can simply be too much for consumers looking to relax, browse in peace, or simply get in and out of a store quickly.

While the greater majority of shoppers may prefer to be left alone, this should not come as too much of a surprise, considering how much technology has supplemented the shopping experience. With enhanced apps and self-checkout lines it’s not hard to understand why most shoppers prefer to browse solo.

Smartphones have given us the ability to check prices, order goods, and check stock all without interacting with another human.

For many shoppers, this is an efficient way to save both time and money while shopping. For other shoppers, like myself, smartphones offer another way to shop without triggering my anxiety. Asking for help, or a price is nearly impossible – I’d rather go without an item than have to ask someone for help.

Sounds ridiculous? Believe me, it feels ridiculous too, but nevertheless, having alternative ways to shop without interacting, is a blessing for many people, for a variety of reasons.

What does this mean for stores? It’s time to take another look at your apps and/or mobile presence (and in-store wifi availability). Since customers are shying away from human interaction, is your app allowing people to scan for prices? Can your customers check stock and order things online to be picked up in store? Can customers use your app to enhance their shopping experience in-store? If not, you may lose customers to stores that offer these enhanced apps.

Times are changing.

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Business Marketing

How small retailers can adapt to new holiday shopping trends

(BUSINESS NEWS) Is your brand keeping up with shifting seasonal shopping trends? The changes are accelerating and small retailers must play catch up.

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small retailers shopping trends

Sometimes it really is Christmas in July. Shopping seasons for holidays are shifting, creeping into earlier slots each year. Specialty retailers have to keep up or risk losing business to larger competition.

When I worked at a locally owned children’s toy store, big box retailers often dictated our holiday seasons.

If Michael’s put out Halloween crafts at the end of August, we were pressured to follow suit or lose business. HEB groceries started lining the shelves with Valentine’s offerings almost immediately after Christmas.

It became a running joke to see how quickly other stores would skip to ahead to the next holiday.

One year at the toy store, we actually wrapped Christmas presents as early as July. While it was tempting to make the easy joke, we had a bigger question: is it really time to start ordering for the holidays already?

Smaller businesses, locally owned shops, and specialty stores typically don’t have the same purchasing power as say, Walmart. So if retail tycoons start stocking up on holiday items early in the season, other stores are left with limited inventory to order.

With less product choices, stores that don’t get ahead of the curve fall behind in sales and customer happiness.

Additionally, advertising inventory is limited. Since consumer holiday spending shifted to the six-day retail holiday starting on Thanksgiving, pressure is on marketers to capture customer interest.

Although larger retailers engaging in heavy marketing may lift the market as whole, success is not as equal. Only those who have the inventory to back up interest will see growth.

Online retail holidays account for a significant chunk of e-commerce spending. In 2017, online desktop spending between Thanksgiving and Cyber Tuesday accounted for 17.7 percent of all e-commerce holiday spending according to comScore.

Back in 2016, the same shopping period clocked 16.8 percent of online spending. We’re seeing a steady increase in early spending, but less days to spend.

This year there are 33 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but in 2019 that drops to only 27 days. There’s less time for marketers to capture attention before budgets get blown during Thanksgiving holiday sales.

Online retailers may lose out on sales if they aren’t able to leverage Thanksgiving retail shoppers.

Executing strong marketing strategies early in the season (rather than just joking about what the big boys are doing) is now crucial for brand success, especially smaller storefronts.

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