The Secret Economy Behind Free Food Samples

The next time you see free food samples at the local supermarket, take a closer look at what’s being served and how it’s presented. You could be on the receiving end of an elaborate and expensive offering cooked up by a clever retailer — or may be getting leftovers that are about to hit their expiration date. took a look at the economy of sampling, and found that some retailers make big money charging foodmakers for the right to offer free samples to their customers.

So what does it cost Unilever, Keebler and Nestle to put some Hellman’s mayonnaise, Chips Deluxe cookies or DiGiorno’s pizza into shoppers’ mouths? It’s $200 to $240 per store at Wal-Mart, but Sam’s Club is open to negotiation. Oh, and companies still have to give out samples in carts with a giant Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club sign above them.

If that seems a bit steep, keep in mind that getting a customer to even try a product is the biggest part of the battle — with companies spending more than $94 billion in advertising alone last year just to get people to consider a product they may never have sampled, according to Kantar Media. With the free sample, a company gets the customer to try a product without putting up a price barrier, while the customer gets a “free” item while not having to gamble a portion of that week’s grocery bill on a product they may not even like.

That may sound like a good deal, but what about those expiring foods? According to TheStreet, “it’s common practice among many supermarket chains to take popular items that are a week to a few days away from expiration and cook them up for customers rather than toss them into the trash compactor out back.”

How can you tell the difference? You may not be able to right away, but you can spot retailers that haven’t invested in making sampling a real business. If “there’s just a teenager behind a card table with toothpicks,” chances are the retailer isn’t all that savvy about the whole sampling thing.

Why Retailers Pay For Your Free Samples [TheStreet]

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