PROVO — If you've ever stood in line for free samples at a grocery store, chances are you also bought the product you sampled. But does sampling actually increase sales and encourage customer loyalty?
Recent research from BYU says yes.
Grabbing free samples at a grocery store is a tradition shoppers expect at major warehouse retailers like Costco or Sam's Club.
These stores are renowned for providing copious free food samples to their shoppers, letting customers see, smell, touch and taste products before committing to buy them.
BYU associate marketing professor Jeffrey Dotson, along with co-authors Sandeep Chandakula and Qing Liu, researched how sampling affects sales. Their findings were published in the December issue of Journal of Retailing.
"I think what we're showing is there is a benefit above and beyond just making the store shopping experience beneficial or enjoyable," Dotson said.
Rather than explore the psychological consequences of in-store sampling, he continued, the new research investigated the immediate and long-term impact on sales.
The researchers studied six store-level scanner data sets from two popular grocery retailers and a coffee shop chain. Each data set focused on sampling events using either frozen or shelf-stable snacks.
The first interesting finding, Dotson said, is the immediate spike in sales during an event and the following week.
Whether at the grocery store or the coffee shop, the product given away as free samples saw significantly boosted sales during the first week, and the boost didn't disappear after the sampling day.
Rather, sampled products continued to sell for anywhere from two to eight weeks after the sampling event.
"Which could be an indication," Dotson explained, "that people are adopting the product and continuing to buy it repeatedly."
And giving away free samples was twice as effective as other promotions such as discounting items or moving products to the end of the aisle.
"Experiential events add value to a product without altering consumers’ expectations of price," the study says, recommending managers use sampling to expand category sales.
Another finding showed that holding multiple sampling events of the same product led to more sales in the long run.
"We view this as people start to adopt the product as they are repeatedly exposed to it," Dotson said.
Smaller stores also seem to benefit from sampling more than larger retailers, the study says.
Giving away free samples didn't just increase sales for a specific brand, he added, it lifted the entire category of products.
For example, if stores handed out samples of an expensive brand of cereal, sales increased for all cereals, not just with the sampled brand.
"That’s very different from other types of priced and non-priced promotional effects," Dotson explained.
One thing the paper didn't investigate is the cost of giving away samples. After all, giving away free products to consumers isn't cheap to the retailers.
Marketers spent more than $2.2 billion on product sampling in 2009, according to a VSS Communications Industry Forecast referenced in the research.
"It’s going to lead to an increase in sales," Dotson said, "But at what expense?”