Retailing Tips & Advice

The reasons why sampling works and 10 tips to doing it well

Product sampling for retailers

Product sampling is when you provide your customers with a free sample of a product. It’s a great way to let them “try before they buy,” which goes a long way to building trust and increases the likelihood that they’ll choose to buy the product, either at the time of sampling or in the future. Research has found that people who try a product are nearly twice as likely to buy it in the future, so offering samples can be a great way to turn potential customers into loyal customers. Regular sampling is also a great way to keep your customer base coming back to your store, as they enjoy the weekly experience, so they keep returning to you over your competition. But why?

The principle of sampling hardwires into the principle of social obligation, and this is called the Reciprocity Principle. Research carried out by a Dr. Cialdini explored how this rule might apply to business and marketing. He noticed a common strategy among business owners that tapped into this basic survival mechanism time and time again.

What was it? The businesses were all offering a reward to their potential customers before they even made a purchase, and when you offer something first for free if it’s helpful, people feel a real sense of indebtedness towards you.


You can read more about reciprocity here. This indebtedness is a recognised motivator and has a proven and significant effect: Your subsequent requests would make them much more likely to return the favour. When businesses offered samples or a small gift for free to their potential customers, they were basically creating a social obligation for them to return the favour and make a purchase.

Haven’t you experienced this? Where you have refused a sample because you didn’t want to feel compelled to purchase, or when you’ve sampled and had that awkward feeling when you have left without buying? I know I have, and this is what others also feel when sampling in your store.

How to offer sampling in store

How to offer sampling in store

There are several ways of sampling in store, all of which will increase your sales on the day. Here are some good practice ideas for you to consider:

1. You can simply leave a table of samples on display, with information about the product being offered and plenty of actual products readily available to pick up to buy next to the sample table.  This allows your customers to try as much as they like with no thought of buying (remember the Reciprocity Principle), and you will often have a few customers who will keep sampling for as long as there are samples to enjoy! So, point to note is that you may see little or no increase in sales of the sampled product.

2. You can ask your suppliers to come and do a day of sampling for you, where they man your samples table and bring the samples with them, so you just provide the space. You do need to be aware that this is an expensive activity for your supplier, as it means wages, travel time and costs, plus the cost of samples to stand in your store to chat with your customers and to sell more units on your behalf. Whilst this does increase brand awareness for your supplier, in light of where things are in terms of the economy, staffing challenges and associated costs, it may not be feasible for them to do. Remember, they may have 200 other customers asking them for a sampling day, and it simply may not always be possible for them to facilitate this.

Food Sampling in store

3. You can have a sample table set up and put one of your staff members on to man it for a set period of time and you build awareness around this on the week before you offer the samples, to build up anticipation amongst your customers. By limiting the time, to say 2 hours, you can know precisely what it is costing you for your staff member. Ask your supplier to supply you with the samples and some company/brand information then your staff does the coaxing and the chatting next to the samples table, so essentially you and your supplier split the costs. Be proactive, have a sign saying what time you will be sampling, and ensure you advertise it in store and on social media. Make it a regular time for all your sampling, so your customers remember and come at the right time.

4. Position your table near the front of your store, not tucked away at the back, so you can capture the attention of passers-by and returning customers. You never know, by pulling people off the street to try something, you may end up with some new customers!

5. Ensure an attractive and clean display on your sample table, be aware of hygiene and good practice around food products.

Choc Affair Product Display

6. Provide a clear next step and remove the barriers to buying. Think of your free product samples as the first step of the buying process. People receive the free sample, enjoy it, and then it is up to you, the retailer, to make the assumption they want to purchase the full-price version – you MUST make it easy for them to do so. Offer a discount on the full-priced product if they buy today, have clear signage telling them about the offer and also reiterate it in your conversation. Teach your staff members about the product they are sampling so they can be informed for your customers, and remember to have the product at the checkout point as a final reminder for them to purchase.

7. Have your social media icons ready for a QR code scan, and ask them to post their experience on SM. Again, remember the reciprocity principle, give them a sample and ask for something in return. A post on SM helps you raise brand awareness and build trust with new audiences because of a simple endorsement from someone they trust.

QR codes at the checkout

8. Be aware of limiting the number of choices your customer faces with your sampling and make it manageable, as when people are faced with just one or a handful of choices, making a selection feels manageable. You’ll probably remember a time when you felt overwhelmed by choice and ended up not making a decision at all. It is another named phenomenon called the paradox of choice, and you need to reduce any buying anxieties for your customers. So, remove the obstacle and limit your samples to no more than 3 options. You can always repeat the sampling exercise another day!

9. Have fun – remember this is all about relationships and building trust, so put your most outgoing and enthusiastic member of staff on the sampling table, and let them shine. Do make sure your staff members have tried the products, as their enthusiasm is contagious and can be extremely powerful in increasing sales.

10. Measure your outcomes from the sampling. If you can record the uplift in item sales on the day and monitor any social media activity, you can hopefully determine the success of your time and efforts. Be realistic and remember that all marketing carries costs, so do expect there to be a cost associated with this practice and look at it with a mid to long-term view.

Please give us a shout to let us know how we can help you.

Charlotte on

01904 541541