The Psychology of Free Samples

A couple of weeks ago in this blog we covered a concept called reciprocity – essentially, a common mental trait among humans which means we are prone to reciprocate gifts given to us, whether we expected to receive them or not.

Normally, we’d leave this topic for a while, but it has recently been covered in detail in some of the more mainstream press, particularly in America, and so we’re going to dive a little deeper in to the psychology of free samples. {Tweet}

The Psychology of Free Samples

The Psychology of Free Samples

Some Benefits of Free Samples

Whilst this article focuses largely on food, the general ideas behind it are relatively transferable to a range of products and services (although probably not to higher-end items, and luxury goods for instance).

Within food and groceries, providing free samples can have a number of benefits, including generating a more positive in-store experience (the store smells nicer for instance), expanding customers’ horizons in terms of the type of goods they are open to buying, reminding customers of a taste they had once enjoyed but have lapsed on buying in the recent past, and of course, whetting the appetite of a customer who will then make purchasing decisions based on being hungry there and then, rather than based on how they will feel when they get home or a list they compiled beforehand. As a test, take a look at your supermarket receipts from when you went shopping and know you were hungry, compared to when you went shopping and you were satiated – the odds are you’ll have spent more, and probably on treats / snack type food, in the former instance.

Of course, most of the above elements are physical in nature – free samples help to generate hunger and appetite for instance. However, there are also some psychological elements – reciprocity in particular, but also social expectation. {Tweet}

The Psychology of Free Samples

To start with reciprocity, it’s also worth taking a look at our previous article on the topic. However, in brief, this is a psychological trait in which we feel the need to balance some form of moral contract – someone has given us a food item, and we subconsciously feel the need to return the exchange; potentially through purchasing the product from the demonstrator or employee manning the sample table. {Tweet}

However, during a recent (well, 2011) research study, the one mentioned in the American press described above, shoppers also felt a need to reciprocate even when there was no demonstrator – i.e. when they were only at the table with other shoppers much like themselves.

This suggests that, when other individuals are present for free sample style events, shoppers may feel a kind of subconscious social pressure to be seen to right a kind of balance of karma – we can think about this idea in much the same way as making a donation to charity. If the previous five people in a line have all put money in to the collection tin, most people would find it quite difficult to simply pass the tin on to the next person without making a contribution. The fact that one or more of the people in that queue might have made a large donation is immaterial – the other don’t know that, and in society, we tend to try to keep up appearances. {Tweet}

How Can I Use The Psychology of Free Samples?

As mentioned above, if you offer food products especially, it may be worthwhile providing (probably hot) free samples (especially if they are sugary, and you have a relatively small store – a bakery is ideal) due to the fact that smells and sugary tastes help key our minds towards hunger and appetite. This means consumers will potentially buy more – in terms of the range of goods (if they try something they’ve not had before or for a long time) and in terms of the quantity they buy (they feel hungrier, so over-estimate their needs).

The more psychological elements, such as reciprocity and social conformance, are harder to control, but being aware of them can certainly help. Just remember to act ethically at all times – providing your customers with free samples and great products is a brilliant thing, manipulating them to make purchases based on perceived social conventions (i.e. hiring a fake shopper to stand with large groups and very obviously make a purchase) is poor business ethics (and probably wouldn’t work for very long!)

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