How The Psychology Of Free Samples Affects How We Grocery Shop

Everyone always says to never buy groceries on an empty stomach — after all, it's a clever tip to prevent a high bill at the grocery store. But, when you frequent stores like Costco or Sam's Club, that problem doesn't apply. The free pecks of food that you find around the stores in the form of free samples should add up to something that curbs both your appetite and your potential to overspend.

Yet, when enticed with a variety of free food, you may end up spending more than you budgeted for or picking up things that weren't on your shopping list. This isn't a coincidence; brands use free samples as a way to change how you shop for groceries. Even though it could seem counterintuitive to give away products for free, the tactic actually drives up sales.

When companies willingly give something away for free, consumers often feel the need to reciprocate the favor by purchasing a product. Whether it's the twinge of guilt you get from walking away after an employee has handed you free food or the need to give something back to the brand, the technique works. Also, the investment in potential customers by the brand often engenders a feeling of loyalty between the consumer and the company, making you more likely to go back for more.

Other ways free samples influence shopping habits

Even if you don't feel a particular sense of loyalty to a company, seeing free samples of a specific product makes you more aware of the brand's existence. On your way from one side of the mall to the other, you may encounter a free sample for a pretzel bite or a piece of sesame chicken. Even if you don't stop to buy more, the next time you're hungry in the food court, going with a brand you've already tasted reduces the risk of eating something you don't like.

Risk aversion is a powerful impulse that leads people to avoid shelling out money for something they may not like. Not having to spend money diminishes the negative feelings associated with buying something you might dislike. By taking the money aspect out of the decision, free samples allow you to better determine whether you actually want to buy something.

According to a study conducted by Brigham Young University, free samples drive up sales even more than typical in-store promotions and displays. The initial satisfaction of the sample brings customers back for a specific product. The next time you're trying to figure out when to go to Costco if you're after free samples, remember that you might end up leaving the store with more than you bargained for.