The Science of Free Samples: How Freebies Can Keep Customers Coming Back For More

Free samples | Shopify Retail blog

The idea of giving away your product for free can feel a little daunting. After all, someone has to pay for that — and when it comes to free samples, you eat the cost.

But don’t let that dissuade you, because free samples can generate a lot of sales for you over time. In some cases, free samples can boost sales by as much as 2,000%.

You can use free samples to:

  • Introduce your product to new audiences unfamiliar with your brand.
  • Foster relationships and inspire loyalty with existing customers.
  • Expand shoppers’ knowledge about the products you offer.
  • Encourage repeat customers and more sales of new products.
  • Earn attention for your brand at or leading up to an event.

Those are all great outcomes for your business (and your revenues). Still, they require your initial investment: you need to pony up the product samples.

Before you double down and start giving everything away, it may help to understand why freebies hook customers. And more importantly, you might want to know how giving your product out for free leads to paying customers.

We set out to understand the science behind the power of free samples — and how they can lead to sales for retailers.

The Psychology of Purchases: Free Samples Help Customers Make Buying Choices

Customers go through what’s called a buyer decision process whenever they need to make a purchase. Shoppers realize they have a need, desire, or a problem before they start seeking information about a potential solution.

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Then, they consider a solution and its alternatives. A huge amount of information influences a shopper’s decision when making a choice between those alternatives. Price, availability, and personal preferences or biases all play a role.

Social proof is an extremely powerful factor, too (although you can also use the science behind that human phenomenon to increase sales with samples).

Providing a product sample cuts through this noise, and can help sway a customer to make a favorable purchasing decision. They can try the product for themselves, and that direct experience provides a more rational way to evaluate and understand your solution.

Free Samples Play on the Rule of Reciprocity

When someone does something nice for you, it creates an urge for you to do something nice in return.

This phenomenon is called reciprocity.

This is exactly what happens when your business offers free samples to customers. In exchange for receiving something from you, they feel compelled to do something “nice” in return — like purchase a product as a “thank you” for getting to try a sample.

Joe Pinsker reported on this psychology and how it impacts shoppers at Costco, a retailer that is well-known for its generous and widely-available samples.

While shoppers might feel obligated to give your brand something once they receive a product sample, Pinsker also noted that another pressure that might be at play when you give away things for free.

A study he quotes in his piece for The Atlantic suggests that “samplers with a heightened awareness of the presence of others at the sampling station may feel a level of social ‘pressure’ to make a post-sample purchase.”

In other words, it might be guilt that people feel instead of the desire to reciprocate. Either way, the psychology of offering customers a taste of what you’re selling works in your favor.

Your Product Samples Can Give Customers the Warm Fuzzies About Your Brand

Samples aren’t just for attracting new customers or introducing people to your products. Giving existing customers samples helps foster brand loyalty, too.

A study around wine tastings conducted by Cornell University professor Miguel Gomez showed customers who enjoyed a tasting were not only more likely to spend more money at the winery, but also highly likely to buy from the business again in the future.

The study noted that product samples played a role in the results, but that they didn’t exist in a vacuum. Providing the samples along with great service and a good atmosphere was important — so obviously offering something free isn’t quite enough to win over every customer.

Yes, There Is a Wrong Way to Offer Free Samples

Free samples | Shopify Retail blogYou’re convinced: you want to use samples to attract new customers, introduce difference audiences to your product, and entice existing shoppers to buy more.

But before you allow your customers to sample everything in the store, know that offering too much can backfire.

When people are faced with just one or a handful of choices, making a selection feels manageable. (And if you’re not forcing customers to choose but allowing them to sample multiple products, a small selection feels reasonable and comfortable.)

But when you start adding in more and more choices, our ability to simply pick one declines. Eventually, we reach a point where we make no decision at all because of our inability to handle how overwhelmed we feel by all the choice.

You also need a plan for the product samples you want to offer. You want to consider the following before offering your inventory up for customers without rhyme or reason:

  • What is the purpose of offering free samples? What do you hope to achieve? Knowing this will help inform decisions around what to offer, when, and how long.
  • Who do you want to try your product? That will help you understand what you need to do to make sure the product gets to the right shoppers. (Perhaps you want to introduce your product to athletes; in this case, sponsoring a 5k race and handing out your product at the finish line might be appropriate.)
  • How will you measure success? You need a way to track your sample campaigns and whether or not they helped drive business. That means thinking strategically (and avoiding a shotgun approach to free samples).

Incorporate Samples Into Your Online and Offline Business

Science says samples helps create a sense of brand loyalty amongst existing customers and can help incentivize new ones to make a purchase, which is great for your business — as long as you have a physical location or an ability to hand those samples to your customers.

When you run a primarily virtual, online ecommerce store, taking advantage of the benefits of free samples gets tricky. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Offering product samples isn’t just for physical retailers. RetireWire reported on the efforts of Sam’s Club to incentivize online shoppers by providing a sampler pack for free with any online purchase. You can do the same by providing a few free, sample-sized products with customer orders to encourage repeat buyers to try something new.

There are various other ideas you can try to get a sample product into the hands of a potential customer, too — even if you can’t shrink your product and give away tiny sample sizes to shoppers who want samples.

Instead, consider creating a variation of Warby Parker’s free Home Try-On program. The eyewear company allows potential customers to select up to five different frames to physically try on.

Free samples, Warby Parker Home Try On program | Shopify Retail blogWarby Parker ships the frames to the customer’s house, where they have five days in which to try on the frames, test them out, and send them back. (If customers fail to send back all the pairs they tried or cause any damage, Warby Parker charges for the incidentals.)

It’s a great way to allow shoppers to “sample” what you offer, but you need to work this into your overall business model to make it feasible and cost-effective.

If you don’t want to bother with the logistics or the potential costs to your company, consider how you can make a sample your initial offer to a potential customer. Some brands offer “25% off your first order,” free shipping, or small products tossed into an order as a free gift — but what if your offer was simply one of your products?

Subscription box company Julep occasionally runs promotions for first-time buyers. They offer the first box free to new customers, who receive an entire set of samples to enjoy.

Free samples, Julep cosmetics | Shopify Retail blogThis allows Julep to take advantage of the science behind product samples while also getting initial buy-in from a customer. While buyers can unsubscribe anytime, the easiest course of action is to simply continue letting the boxes arrive at their doorstep.

You could offer a small product at a low price point when visitors to your site complete a form or subscribe to a mailing list. This allows you to get a sample into their hands — and it provides you with their information so you can market to them over time.

Moving Forward With Free Samples

Now that you’ve seen some examples of free samples in action, you can make choices about whether this tactic is right for your business.

Have you offered product samples to your customers? Share your experiences in the comments below.