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Why free samples end up costing you money

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Accepting a free sample triggers deep psychological responses that make us more susceptible to spending money

Think back to your last visit to a supermarket or a mall. Most likely, you passed a stall offering freebies of some product. Free samples are everywhere, and they can add a little excitement to your day.

Smaller stores often give out freebies to popularize new products. Restaurants and coffee shops hand out free drinks and snacks to get people to try a new menu item. In the online world we’re inundated with giveaways, free monthly trials and redeemable vouchers. Freebies are everywhere.

The science of persuasion

Why do companies give stuff away for free?

It feels great to get all this stuff without spending any money. But how does it work for the sellers? Interestingly, giving out a little bit for free typically helps drum up greater sales for most sellers. From a marketing perspective, letting people try a product free of cost has a lot of benefits because it:

  • Popularizes a new product;
  • Creates word-of-mouth so that news of the product reaches more people;
  • Creates feedback about the product that helps refine it;
  • Reaches out to new customers who may otherwise be hesitant about trying it;
  • Creates new sales if people like the product; and
  • Creates a more positive attitude towards the product – simply because it’s free!

Does it really work?

Marketing studies confirm that freebies are a powerful and effective promotional weapon. Free samples improve customer loyalty and attitudes, not just towards the product, but also the company offering them. The giant American retailer Costco is a perfect example of this.

Their famous free sample strategy is an ideal win-win situation; where the customers feel good about getting freebies; and the stores get increased sales for each product whose samples are available. One study found that not only were people who took a free sample more likely to purchase the product, but were also likely to try other samples and buy more products on average.

Of course, we must remember that personality and preferences of the shopper will play an important role in whether people will accept free samples; and whether they go ahead and buy the product after trying it. But the bottom line is that free stuff really just leads to more sales.

Freebies are infectious

The impact of free samples is not just restricted to the actual product. Particularly in smaller stores, the effect easily carries over to other products as well.

For example, a chocolate store found that people who received free samples were more likely to make a purchase (even if it was a small one), compared to those who didn’t get the freebie. These purchases were often for different products; and not just the one sampled.

The takeaway is that freebies increase the overall likelihood of buying something – not just the product sample itself.

Why are free samples so effective?

Crazy things happen in our brain when we get free stuff. Robert Cialdini’s seminal work on the psychology of persuasion outlined many of these principles.

Hence even  though we’re usually conscious that it’s a sales gimmick, simply accepting a free product sample can trigger powerful psychological responses.

1. Reciprocity

Any helpful / kind / friendly gesture immediately makes us want to reciprocate or return the favor. Accepting / choosing free samples can encourage us to buy larger packs of the products. Sometimes, we may not like the free product we tried.

But because we have the desire to reciprocate, we may buy another product of the same company; recommend the product to someone who may like it; or even buy a small packet just to ease our need to ‘pay back’. Receiving free things out of the blue can also motivate us to be generous in our evaluations of the product and the seller. Which means that people will have better memories of the product.

Making a small gesture of free stuff – whether it’s a mint at the end of a meal, a complimentary drink, a taster for a new snack, or a trail version of a website – immediately increases both the likelihood and the amount of the following sale. Our need to reciprocate is further enhanced when we are met by a friendly, smiling, sales person.

So when we can put a face to the ‘giver’ of free stuff, our desire to reciprocate becomes stronger. In comparison, we feel less compelled to reciprocate when the sample counter is unmanned; or when no one directly interacts with us.

2. Commitment

We like getting the free stuff. And thus, we like the people who give us free stuff. As consumers, we want to buy from people who make our lives easy and who are nice to us. So when we receive free products or services, we begin to develop a relationship with the seller and become committed to buying from them.

So when someone gives out free samples, we start liking them right off the bat; and with time, this leads to feeling loyal towards these sellers. This means, we are more likely to buy from them in the short term. If we also like the product, we may choose to continue buying from the same store / seller because they once gave us some free items.

3. Triggered cravings

How often has it happened that you had no intention of buying a particular treat; but after trying a sample, you decided to got ahead and buy a pack / box? Sampling something reminds us of the pleasure we get from using that product; and this makes us want more of it. Everyone likes to feel good.

So when we are made aware or reminded of a pleasurable experience our brain demands more of the same thing to keep feeling good.  This typically happens with comfort foods and luxury products.

4. Risk Aversion

Most people are wary of new products because they are worried about not liking them. We worry that if we buy something new, and then we don’t like it; this would be a waste of our time and money. But trying a free sample immediately clears doubts that stand in the way of our purchase. Not only do these samples protect us from spending hard earned money on something we don’t like; but they are also small enough that we can discard something that doesn’t suit our taste with minimal guilt.

Added to this of course, is the fact that the seller was considerate enough to give us free samples! So we are already more likely to favor the product and buy it. Of course, this applies only to products we do like.

But even if we don’t like the item, we are more likely to try other items by the same seller (because they were nice to us); meaning that we end up happy with the purchase, and the seller ends up with a satisfied customer.