SAMPLING….never the Silent Salesman!

The biggest retailers in North America seem oblivious to the true power of sampling and the significant incremental revenues they could be generating!Costco store front

In the case of the Membership stores, they would prefer to have sampling feed their customers for free, rather than making sales increases the priority. 

So it must be something really complicated or costly that they are they missing…right? 

NO!  It is simply mandating communication with every sample distributed.  For Costco, with their size, scope and strong loyalty, sampling should not be outsourced.  Not only are the members passionate, their employees are too and running this aspect would strengthen the bond between both!  Internal execution could double membership revenue profits or more.

20 years executing national sampling programs

We managed the biggest manufacturers of consumer goods, in the biggest retailers, and the solution to success was as stated, communication.

This key piece along with other simple rules helped manufacturers save millions and ensured that where they spent their money, delivered the largest financial returns.  At the end of our run, we determined that the retailers were never going to view this tool as anything more than a revenue generator for their retail space.  They all were addicted to the short term rent, rather than hold companies executing programs accountable for sales on a program.

Sampling is the most effective tool for growing a business and many times at someone else’s expense.

Insights to Maximize Effectiveness

SAMPLING is truly a multi-faceted tool. One which not only brought me out of my shell, but delivered the kind of success I would have never had without it.  It helped me to understand that selling was not bullying or persistence with the same message, but rather levering a sample to permit engagement, communication and interaction, in a manner where I as the giver of samples, was now viewed as the expert.

Size of Sample

I learned how to do this effectively in a franchise, where the sensational smell of our product (extraordinary popcorn ……. smadvertising) would draw people in, where we provided samples to a hungry crowd of transit riders on their way home.  With our passionate interaction/communiction, we would convert 50% or more of our samplers into purchasers.

The sample was small enough to make their mouths water.  The communication about how great the product either in savoury or sweet hooked them.  The key was not to let them have a sample and go, but rather once they took the sample, use this permission to deliver information.

The wrong way to sample:

  • You hear the jokes about the Costco lunch program, but it is the sad truth for companies wasting their sampling money, when it is just the retailer who benefits
  • Manufacturers tell themselves that they do not have to pay to get exposure in this environment, so it is a cost of doing business.  Wrong!  Push for more, so that there is a win-win.  We did so with Clorox.
  • We told WalMart over a decade ago they were losing $50-$100M in bottom line profit just because of the poor manner in which they were executing their exclusive sampling program.  They listened and changed!

The long and the short of this is to recognize that sampling in a focussed and communicative manner is like manna from heaven.

Costco feeding the masses
Swarming the sampling table

The most successful sampling programs come from higher retail priced items because low priced items like a can of soda pop or bag of cookies can itself be given out and as such has a low barrier to entry. 

The high or premium priced products which deliver on a consumer need and the price delivers good value, means a sample takes the risk of the purchase away from the consumer. 

A seafood sales team we worked with executed programs using their own funds (as opposed to marketing budgets), based on the immediate profit/payback in sales, from every program they ran (priced from $12-20/unit).

Uncomplicating Sampling

The key to uncomplicating sampling is to recognize that the sample is the bait in the water.  The communication to the consumer is the fishing line for you to reel the fish in.  Landing the fish in the net is the incremental sale. 

What information do you communicate?

  • Why is this product more special than others on the shelf
  • What is unique about it?  
  • Why is it being made available?  

Answering these questions will ensure that you have the information for a meaningful conversation with your consumers.

Being ahead of the curve, was a key success factor for us.  Creating 5-minute online Briefing Videos, delivering a concise message, to help the demonstrator be successful increased the efficacy of our programs.  

Program after program where the brand/unique message was communicated, always delivered significantly higher ROI and in many cases immediate payback. 

Target an Incremental $500/day:

Costco feeding the masses 2

If you have a store and you can provide a sample. Do not feed the masses!  Instead, provide information and insights and direct them to your most profitable item.

If you interact with 200 people in a day and you convert 50% on a $5.00 purchase that is $500 more/day/demonstration, more than paying back the cost of the samples (maximum $30/day and your person $60-70/day).  It is again just a numbers game, amped up with meaningful information.  How can you not sample?

Running a retail store?  Get the manufacturers to pay for this.  Running a restaurant? Convince suppliers of food you will buy more if they give you free product with which to sample.  Once they see the money coming in, you will get more money and product to extend your program.  Have a high priced rental, leave them a bottle of wine when they check in.  Running a golf course, get a ball supplier to provide free balls for every pay as you play member.

But ensure in delivering the sample, you communicate that what they are trying is different.   The number of times I have been at a Starbucks, where they give you a sample and say nothing (because they are not trained to) is far too numerous to count.

Note, each sample must just be that! 

Not a full size piece!  

Sampling size too big
This sample is a meal and far too big!

We had a market leading National pizza brand team not adhere to our advice and mandated we offer full slices.  Not only was this not a great idea, it dropped their ROI by 75%. It saw sample costs (the sample) skyrocket.  They were not smarter than our direction to always have small squares and make patrons mouths water, instead the program was a complete failure.  

  • When you give full size pizza samples, the hungry ones who will not buy come in like vultures to the carcass.
  • You cannot communicate anything when you are swarmed as a demonstrator. 
  • Plus you are now completely out of samples in 3 minutes or less and you have to wait another 20 minutes for the pizza to cook in the toaster oven

Sampling has been proven in studies to be a more effective tool than advertising

“When it is done with communication”.  

In fact, Sampling is the most effective tool to generate a sale you have as a business owner.

Unfortunately, because so much of it is done so poorly, it has unfavourably impacted the perception of the efficacy of the instrument.


  • Use a sample (while a customer is waiting) to engage them in the conversation.  
  • Make sure they know what it is they are eating, what is different about it and the amount and degree of care taken in preparation.  
  • Show them they can pick up the product right here at the table and that there is a coupon or discount if they buy today.

It is all about the content!  To learn more about what Content truly is and how to make it so easy and effective for you….. in the next lesson.

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