Grocery Girl: Everyone Loves Free Samples


I remember when the Whole Foods opened in Baltimore when I was a kid. I wasn't so interested in the pricy, pretty peaches or the 365 brand cereals. But the free samples? I was sure interested in those.

I remember nibbling my way through juicy grapefruits, pillowy gingerbread, and curried couscous. Then back for another square of that gingerbread, or two.

My store has a bit of a sampling dichotomy. We're famous for our truly amazing olive oils. We always have slices of baguette and little dishes of oils at the ready for dipping.

Our customers can taste the differences between a vegetal, banana-y Greek Koroneiki and light, sweet, citrusy Taggiasca from the Italian Riviera. Or just fuel their shopping with some EVOO-saturated bread. Sometimes we'll throw in some fabulous condiments: artichoke and garlic cream, Genovese pesto, grainy mustard.

But outside that fine olive oil nook, our store is a sample-free zone. Once in a while a protein bar company or a crouton vendor will arrange to come in. You might find toothpicked triangles of nutty, gummy protein bar with a chipper brand rep, all eager to talk carb grams.

But other than that, there are no samples at my store. During my cheesemongering days, we'd try to turn scraps of truffled Moliterno and still-warm mozzarella into free samples. But there was no proper place to put out the bites of cheese. Customers would reach over the cheese counter to snag one, accidentally toppling the delicate, tall, careful display of cheese wheels, like dominoes.

Until last weekend.

Do More Samples = More Business?

We're trying to up the wow factor of the shopping experience, to get a little buzz going. What better way to do that than by upping the free samples?

I'm not just talking pieces of cookies on a big plate or chunks of chorizo. We wanted the experts doing their thing. The master cheese man pairing his wheels with funky things and chatting cheese storage. The rockstar butcher searing up little lamb burgers slathered with harissa. The coffee guru blending custom blends and playing barista.

It worked. The customers swarmed around the little tasting tables. The much-touted notion that everyone loves free food was once again proven correct.

But it went beyond mooching. People genuinely seemed intrigued by our products: this purple fig confit made in Belgium just for our market, a mango salsa, a tangy, ooey cheese from Extremadura.

Even if I've relinquished my gingerbread-snatching ways, it's still nice to try a little somethin' somethin' while grocery-shopping. And it's even nicer to see my store alive with eager food-loving energy.

What's more, it's true that these sampling rampages bump sales, at least for the products we're showing off. Those expensive little wheels of ripe, oozing Spanish cheese were gone from our case in no time.

Do you usually take the free samples?