Cheapskates Rejoice: Free Samples Are Back

Cheapskates Rejoice: Free Samples Are Back #Cheapskates #Rejoice #Free #Samples Welcome to Lopoid

Jessi Levine, a creative director at a Kansas City, Mo., technology company, could feel strangers’ eyes on her. She felt uncomfortable and awkward, she said, but energized, too.

She took a breath. She popped the small cube of cheese into her mouth, and chewed.

Ms. Levine is one of legions of U.S. consumers who are reacquainting themselves with free samples––a time-honored perk of supermarket shopping that all but vanished after the pandemic began spreading in early 2020.

“It was so exciting to me,” Ms. Levine said, referring to the free cheese she ate at a Whole Foods Market, something she said she hadn’t encountered in about two years. “I think it was a part of American society that we lost along with everything.”

Shoppers who have yearned for nibble-sized freebies to return to supermarket aisles say the experience now has a new cache—minute thrills, served on crackers. Consumers are again lining up for slivers of salami or teeny paper cups of guava juice and again relishing the pleasure of snacking their way through grocery stores and not needing lunch after. Some though say they are noticing fewer samples, and new rules or social cues about consuming them. Some samples have been given out in little bags by workers behind plastic barriers.

Hanna Palo has seen a range of freebies when grocery shopping.

Photo:

Hanna Palo

Other businesses have bid free samples good riddance.

“It was a running joke in our staff meeting that people would taste five or six samples and buy something totally different,” said Suzanne Varecka, who owns Honey & Mackie’s ice cream shop in Plymouth, Minn., that sells flavors ranging from carrot cake to Guinness brownie.

She began charging $10 for a flight of several ice cream flavors when the state prohibited samples. Ms. Varecka said she is continuing to offer flights and doesn’t plan on bringing free samples back.

Hanna Palo, who lives in Dayton, Ore., said that when her local

Costco Wholesale Corp.

stopped offering samples at the start of the pandemic, she started shopping online. “What’s the point of going?” she said.

A few months ago, Ms. Palo said, Costco started bringing back its samples. She returned, too. At first she encountered unusual free samples of items such as tissues––which she said she still grabbed. More recently she found freebies ranging from chocolate milk to barbecued meat in almost every aisle. Life feels normal again, she said. “You can slow down and communicate with people.”

At a warehouse store in Long Island, N.Y., Yvonne Sing said a mob quickly formed around a station set up with a slow cooker, where a worker handed out frankfurter samples. “There was a wall of people getting hot dogs,” she said. “I think everybody missed that process of sampling things.”

For some shoppers, the glory days of grocery store grazing haven’t fully returned, because samples are smaller, more limited, or they aren’t food at all, like tin foil.

Jeff Levy, a lawyer in Providence, R.I., said samples he sees at Whole Foods lately are disappointingly limited compared with pre-Covid. Mr. Levy, who described himself as willing to try anything that’s free, said tiny cheese cubes with toothpicks he sees now don’t compete with the grilled meat and other tidbits staff there used to offer.

“Samples are definitely harder to come by,” he said, but “I’m happy that they are back. It breaks up the shopping a little bit.”

Whole Foods said samples vary by location and range from ones offered in containers with tongs for self-serve to those in single-use cups given by staff. The company said stores decide on products and serving styles. It has also introduced a sampling program on Amazon orders, placing freebies in some delivery and pickup orders to surprise customers.

In San Francisco, the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and Mission Community Market said there are tighter rules around samples, and not all sellers have resumed offering them. Other farmers markets have new limitations, like designated eating zones where shoppers are instructed to take their samples before consuming them.

Many companies count on sampling to boost sales.

The return of free samples is helping revive business at Pike Place Market in Seattle, officials there said. Travel guides in the past have outlined how tourists can sample enough of the farmers market’s yogurt, cheese and other items to make for a free meal.

Free samples have returned to Pike Place Market in Seattle.

Photo:

John Moore/Getty Images

Jenny Yang, president of tofu maker Phoenix Bean LLC, said that when the company had been able to hand out samples at Chicago farmers markets, eight out of 10 people who tried Phoenix’s products wound up buying them. “We call it ‘conversion tofu,’ ” she said.

Phoenix Bean’s sales fell 40% in 2021, she said, compared with before the pandemic, with sampling prohibited and foot traffic down at farmers markets. Since farmers markets in Chicago reopened with sampling allowed this summer, Ms. Yang said it has made an immediate difference. “We have had a new product, tofu dip, that we tested out a few Saturdays ago…OMG, it is gone in one hour.”

Nicole Poulsen and her son, who got a sample of soft serve at Costco.

Photo:

Nicole Poulsen

Ryan Sciara said his Kansas City-based Underdog Wine used to host free tastings every Thursday for an hour-and-a-half. Afterward, the shop was often saddled with leftovers.

After putting free tastings on hold over the past two years, Mr. Sciara said he is considering bringing them back––but with reservations required and a charge for private group tastings.

“There are a lot of people asking when free tastings are going to come back,” Mr. Sciara said. “They want a free drink.”

In Kenosha, Wis., Nicole Poulsen said her twice-weekly shopping trips to Costco have now turned into a smorgasbord of samples, including cooked foods, prepackaged snacks such as chips and drinks. Her recent favorites include Key lime pie, bacon and chicken chunks. It’s enough to feel like a small meal, she said, if she’s persistent.

“I stalk the sample person,” she said.

Write to Jaewon Kang at jaewon.kang@wsj.com and Annie Gasparro at annie.gasparro@wsj.com

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