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The Psychology of Free: Does Giving Free Samples Increase Sales?

The Psychology of Free: Does Giving Free Samples Increase Sales?

Of all the markets in this country, the food industry is the most likely to offer free samples. Whether it’s a tray of teriyaki chicken at the counter of a mall food court, or a cheese shop offering unlimited tastes, we’ve all taken a free bite and wanted more. Though this strategy is most commonly practiced in food courts and specialty shops, it shouldn’t end there.

In this post, we share insight into just how effective free samples can be and how you can start offering free samples that will leave a lasting impression on your guests.

Restaurant marketing guide

In addition to samples, find out other effective tactics you can use to market your restaurant—from social media to discount websites.


Do free samples increase sales?

In the short term, free samples might not feel like the best business strategy. Who has the extra money to give away free food? Offering free samples is a tactic used by independently owned specialty shops and wholesale giants like Costco that’s proven to increase conversions.

Everyone loves free food, but there’s a scientific reason behind offering free samples to your guests.

free sample cheese on toothpick

“What samples do is they give you a particular desire for something,” Dan Ariely, behavioral economist at Duke University, tells The Atlantic. “If I gave you a tiny bit of chocolate, all of a sudden it would remind you about the exact taste of chocolate and would increase your craving.”

Naturally, snack food companies have found great success with their free sample offerings. Pretzel Crisps maker the Snack Factory started out by offering free samples of its flat pretzel cracker to reach both pretzel and chip lovers. Conversion rates are 30% higher when products are sampled.

“Reciprocity is a very, very strong instinct. If somebody does something for you, you really feel a rather surprisingly strong obligation to do something back for them,” says Ariely.

This psychology behind free products isn’t exclusive to snack foods or samples at a wholesaler. A free sample of a new product or a tasting of your latest specialty cocktail could be the key to building a long-lasting connection that will keep customers coming back.

By tracking the number of free samples given to guests in your restaurant POS system, you will easily be able to see exactly what you’re giving away and compare it to your overall sales each day. This will give you insight into the impact on sales and how you can alter your free sample program to work for your business.


Who benefits from giving away free samples?

Giving away free samples sparks the beginning of a beautiful and mutually beneficial relationship.

When you incorporate free samples into your business strategy, your customers will feel warm and welcomed, and you have the opportunity to make a brand advocate out of a customer. Here are a few ways free samples will benefit both you and your customers:

  • Introduce your product to new audiences unfamiliar with your business
  • Foster relationships and inspire loyalty with existing customers
  • Expand guests’ knowledge about the products you offer
  • Encourage repeat customers and more sales of new menu items
  • Gain publicity for your brand leading up to an event


Product sampling statistics 

In the beer and wine industry, customer tastings have become an essential piece of their marketing strategy, offering free or low-cost samples of their product before they commit to a full bottle.But does this strategy entice tasters to buy? 

According to a study conducted by Cornell University assistant professor Miguel Gomez, tastings can turn a satisfied customer into a highly satisfied customer. The difference here, according to the study, is “she (or he) is likely to spend an additional $10 buying an extra bottle of wine (with a probability of 93 percent), and to re-purchase wine in the future (92 percent probability).”

Free drink samples in wine glass

The Cornell University study looked at 12 wineries in the Finger Lakes region of New York. All wineries may not experience the same results, but the study concluded that tastings create brand loyalty and entice guests to return for more.

According to the study, there are four key components of customer satisfaction at breweries and wineries, which can be applied to tastings in your restaurant or bar:

  1. Provide great service: This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s important to remember that freebie customers are just as important as paying customers and might require even more attention in order to create a lasting impression.
  2. Create a pleasant atmosphere: If you have the space, creating a tasting area is a great way to have a dedicated location for all types of tasting events. If the tasting occurs at a table or a seat at the bar, be sure to check in on the customers to see if they have any feedback or questions throughout the experience.
  3. Make the tasting memorable: Sharing the chef’s inspiration for the newest dish or the bartender’s background on how a recipe came to fruition is likely to stick in your customers’ minds, rather than simply dropping off the food or drink and walking away.
  4. Have a protocol: Standards for the tasting should be shared with visitors prior to the beginning in order to maintain clear boundaries and provide a seamless experience.


How to incorporate free samples into your business plan

Tastings aren’t just for breweries and wineries. There are a few ways you can work free samples into your daily operations.

  • The grand opening of your restaurant or a new location is a prime opportunity to showcase your greatest hits; the tastiest bites on your menu or something a little out of the ordinary will showcase what makes your business stand apart from your competitors and establish connections with your community.
  • Special events in your restaurant can give your customers a different perspective of your business. By creating a variety of experiences, your customers will never grow tired of visiting your restaurant. Incorporating free samples of limited-time specials will create a sense of urgency and make your restaurant a go-to destination for unique, special events.
  • Leverage your restaurant loyalty program to contact your regular customers and reward them with free food or drinks.
  • Thinking about introducing a new menu item or drink recipe, but want to make sure it’ll go over well with your customer base? Offer a sample of the food or a tasting of the cocktail to customers as they look over the menu to get an idea of how well it will do as a permanent or seasonal menu item.

In order for any of these free sample strategies to be successful, they will require some planning. Start thinking about how fitting free samples into your restaurant marketing plan will work for your business and don’t forget to spread the news on social media.

Looking to increase your sales and grow your customer base? Talk to one of our experts today to find out how Lightspeed can help.

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