How the Return of In-Store Sampling is Going Over with Consumers

New poll shows a surprising acceptance of the tactic that was shelved during the pandemic

By Jessica Wohl | Ad Age | June 9, 2021

In-store food and drink sampling—a key marketing tactic that disappeared during the pandemic—is getting back to normal, an encouraging sign for brands that rely on it to get new products in the hands of consumers.

According to a new Ad Age-Harris Poll, 65% of respondents said they would partake in in-store sampling once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. That’s actually a bit higher than the 62% who said they participated in sampling before the pandemic and way up from 19% who said they have done so during the pandemic’s peak.

Sampling is already making a comeback at chains such as Walmart’s Sam’s Club warehouse chain, which announced the resumption of its sampling and demo program on June 1, after hitting pause in March 2020. New plans include having a food truck in the parking lot to pass out samples of items in its Member’s Mark brand. “Additionally, Sam’s Club is testing new ways to sample items, such as roaming events that bring sampling directly to members as they checkout, visit the member services desk or use Sam’s Club Curbside Pickup,” the chain announced.

Whole Foods, meanwhile, is allowing some packaged samples to be given out, though open food demos are not yet back at that Amazon-owned chain.

Pre-pandemic, snagging samples at stores such as Costco, Sam’s Club and Trader Joe’s was part of the shopping ritual for many Americans. But in the early months of COVID-19, people didn’t want to even touch a shopping cart or bags handled by someone else, so they certainly weren’t going to grab a sample handed out by another person. And stores were enforcing distancing and facial covering guidelines, so having people come close to hear about a new item, let alone remove their masks to try it, wasn’t going to work.

The poll results show that the pandemic did not change attitudes for good, however. It found that 49% of respondents say it is a good idea for stores to reintroduce in-store samples. Just 22% said it was a bad idea, and 29% weren’t sure about the move.

According to the poll, people with higher household incomes are more likely to enjoy sampling. Among households with incomes exceeding $100,000, 73% of respondents say they ate samples prior to the pandemic and 69% say they’re likely to do so as restrictions are lifted. Just 52% of respondents from households with incomes below $50,000 said they had samples in stores before the pandemic, and 61% say they’re likely to do so post-pandemic. The online poll of 1,055 U.S. adults was conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of Ad Age from June 4 to 7.

Samples aren’t the only thing making a comeback. Whole Foods is among the retailers resuming some self-serve areas, such as salad bars. And Starbucks will begin allowing customers to bring in their own reusable cups starting June 22. The coffee chain has a new method that has the barista put a customer’s clean cup into a ceramic mug, limiting the amount of contact on the cup itself.

For retailers and brands, there are compelling reasons to resume sampling. More than two-thirds of respondents say they’re more likely to buy a product after sampling it in a store, with 31% saying they are more likely to do so, and 37% saying they are somewhat more likely to do so.

Also, 86% of respondents said they have purchased an item after sampling. Appetizers or hor d’oeuvres were the most popular item to buy after sampling (51%), followed by cheese (48%) and dessert or baked goods (47%).

Still, there are multiple reasons shoppers might hesitate to try samples in stores, with 40% saying they wouldn’t sample foods because they say it’s unsanitary, and 35% concerned about catching COVID-19 via in-store food samples. Plus, 21% of respondents said samples aren’t offered at the stores where they shop, and 13% plan to do most or all of their shopping online.

Read the full story at Ad Age.