Don’t Discount the Power of Samples

In-store samples can boost retail sales more than other methods such as coupons and sales.

Retailers have long offered in-store food samples to consumers in the hopes that they’ll choose to buy the product on the spot. But a recent study finds that in-store samples can have a much longer-lasting effect—and can often have a greater positive impact on sales than other retailing mainstays such as product displays.

The study’s co-authors include Sandeep Chandukala, associate professor of marketing at Singapore Management University; Jeffrey Dotson, associate professor of marketing at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah; and Qing Liu, associate professor of marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Chandukala, Dotson, and Liu analyzed data from in-store product samples of snack foods that a large coffee shop provided to its customers. These snacks included healthy, frozen, and salty options, and they represented both new and existing products from both national and private-label brands.

By offering in-store samples, retailers can tap into what is known as the “category expansion effect.” That is, even if consumers do not choose to buy the product they’ve sampled, they are more likely to buy a product in the same category.

Retailers like providing samples not only because the tactic is less expensive than coupons and sales, but also because they view it as a way to build brand loyalty, so that consumers will buy the product at full price. What they might not realize, Liu explains, is that providing samples can lift sales across the board in a category.

Not only that, the researchers found that the effect of providing samples is sustained even if a retailer offers samples of the same product multiple times, which could be especially relevant to smaller stores that sell fewer products.

In-store sampling “generates better results than simply relying on improved product display efforts,” says Liu. “These findings give store managers and brand managers information they can use to expand brand and category sales.”

“An Assessment of When, Where and Under What Conditions In-Store Sampling is Most Effective” was published online August 31, 2017, by the Journal of Retailing.