When can we eat free samples at the grocery store again?

free food samples coronavirus
Photo via taylorhatmaker/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the grocery shopping experience has dramatically changed. Shoppers have spent most of 2020 trying to get through stores as fast as possible—or relying on digital shopping—and have fewer options than ever. While some shopping aspects have returned closer to normal as the pandemic has continued, other aspects remain on hold. Consumers want to know: When will free food samples return? 

Gone are the days when you could piece together an entire meal from free samples at Costco or spend trips to Trader Joes sipping on complimentary coffee while shuffling through the aisles. Some analysts believe free food samples, as we know them, may never return. 

According to Eater, some retailers technically brought back free samples earlier this summer. For example, Costco now offers dry samples, typically prepackaged snacks that shoppers can grab and go. Other retailers have tried drive-thru samples, where consumers get a goody bag from a branded tent on their way into the store. 

“We’re going to start doing some things in mid-June on a slow rollout basis in sampling,” Costco Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti teased to USA Today in May. “I can’t tell you anymore, but needless to say it’s not going to be where you go and just pick up an open sample with your fingers.”

These methods are obviously nothing like the way it was before when a Costco shopper could expect fresh and hot delicacies—like ravioli, dumplings, or lasagna—while they meandered down each aisle. 

The Washington Post reported that health experts say some types of free sample demos should be left in 2019. The experts primarily take issue with unsupervised bowls and trays of snacks—like bread, crackers, cookies—that fellow shoppers could sneeze or cough on. 

Brand marketers say brands miss the demos more than hungry shoppers. Eater reported that small and emerging brands who use free samples to gain exposure have been hit the hardest during the pandemic. 

Rodrigo Salas, president of Molli Sauces, told the website the brand lost 30% of its sales since the pandemic began. 

“Online we’ve been able to recover about 5% of those sales,” Salas said. “We haven’t found a way to really compensate for the lack of in-store presence.”

Andrew Therrien, director of business development at demoing company Samplers Inc told Eater that the shift to dry samples isn’t feasible for most emerging brands. 

“Brands either have to give away a full unit because it has to be a prepackaged sample, or they have to figure out a way to make a smaller sample size that they can do in bulk,” Therrien said. “Often packaging is more expensive than the product itself.” 

In the end, the lack of free samples could hurt up-and-coming brands for the long term and actually contribute to a decrease in variety at stores. 

The Post reported that the elimination of free food samples is one reason why American shoppers may have noticed they have fewer options at the grocery store these days. 

According to the newspaper, the pandemic has negatively impacted environmentally-friendly and “good for you” brands. Instead of investing in new and innovative brands, grocery stores are doubling down on their purchases of well-established brands. 

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Sources: Eater, USA Today, Washington Post

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