Freebies are back at the grocery store after a long pandemic hiatus.
Trader Joe's brought back in-store food samples at some stores on Saturday. Shoppers posted videos and photos on TikTok, Instagram and other social platforms of some of Trader Joe's samples over the weekend, including granola and Halloween cookies.
Trader Joe's will offer up single-serve snacks and treats for customers to nibble on, but hot coffee won't return, according to employees at New York and California stores. Food demos will come back to some stores, but Trader Joe's won't relaunch them nationwide. Trader Joe's did not respond to requests for more information on the program.
"I'm excited. You used to get the coffee cups. The samples make everything a little bit better," said Natasha Fischer, who runs @traderjoeslist, an Instagram account and newsletter documenting the latest Trader Joe's finds.
Free samples are a common sales tactic for many supermarkets and food and drink brands.
Companies want you to have a bite at the store to get your saliva glands working as you browse around, said Paco Underhill, the founder of behavioral research and consulting firm Envirosell and author of "How We Eat: The Brave New World of Food and Drink. This makes you a less disciplined shopper, he said. Sampling a product also slows customers down and gets them to linger longer in the store, increasing the chances they'll add more items to their carts.
Startup food brands rely on store demos to introduce customers to their products and get their feedback, said Yuval Selik, the CEO of Promomash, a company that works with brands on samples and promotion strategy. He pointed to KeVita kombucha, Beyond Meat and Kashi cereal as emerging brands that used samples to grow.
But food brands took a hit when stores removed sample tables early in the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.
They were slow to bring back the perk. More companies have resumed, but some of their procedures have changed to try to entice hygiene-conscious customers. Customers are likelier to now see workers stationed behind tables handing out packaged samples or in single-use cups than self-serve demos.
Costco began bringing back samples in 2021, but added plexiglass stations. Contract workers hand out prepared and cooked items to customers one at a time from behind the stations.
Sam's Club also brought back its Taste & Tips demo program last year. It offers everything from snacks to deli meats.
At first, Taste & Tips returned on weekends and in limited quantities with sealed samples. The company works with suppliers to select and schedule demos of their items. They're often new items, which allows shoppers to sample them before they buy.
"Demos have long been one of our members' favorite experiences when they visit our clubs," a Sam's Club spokesperson said.
Whole Foods has brought back samples, but there are some differences.
The biggest change is that if a state or city has a mask mandate, Whole Foods will not have open sampling in the store and will only have packaged samples available.
Since the company rolled out grocery delivery and pickup across the country during the pandemic, it also began placing samples in some orders at select locations during different times of year.
Small brands lost out when in-store samples paused, but demos are beginning to return to pre-Covid levels, Selik said. He expects them to increase further next year.
"I think 2023 is going to be huge for samples."
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