The history and psychology of free sample

Shutterstock.com/ Tyler Olson
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Free samples are something that has become part and parcel of life. Whether you are walking down the main street in a city and offered free samples of ice cream or are going through the aisles of your supermarket and offered everything from yogurt to pasta, free trials are now an expected and quite a nice part of life. Let’s dig into free samples a little more to understand where they came from and why they are offered.

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As a teenager I found free trials to be the silliest idea in the world. I would gladly take wherever delicious treats were on offer and would never buy any of them. I remember once going to a very high priced gelato provider who insisted that customers try every flavor they had to offer. I tried every flavor and walked out the door right after. In my defense, I was young, foolish, and full. However, I think that the gelato provider had the last laugh as I returned there many times and always purchased something.

Free samples appeal to the public because they are free yet they work for businesses for a different reason. Consumers are creatures of habit. We buy what we know and it is incredibly difficult to get us to change our buying behavior. By offering free samples you have the opportunity to show a consumer something better. If you have confidence in your product then they will likely switch to buying it. Even if the product is not that good, many consumers will still buy it. 

The reason is that deep in our subconscious if we are given something for free we feel like we should do something in return. With a free sample, the company is making it very clear what they are asking for you to do in return and many people are happy to oblige. In fact, many people who want a free sample but know they don’t want to buy it will often refuse the product for this reason. Companies are using our nature to their advantage.

This is something that appears to be as old as business itself. It is well documented that the oldest business is prostitution and some experts (experts in marketing that is) believe that it was in this business the first free sample (a kiss) was offered. 

Throughout time there have been some talented marketers who have used free samples to generate massive returns. Wrigleys is one of the most famous brands in the world today as the leading supplier of chewing gum. Yet the man behind the business, William Wrigley Jr. started as a soap salesman. He understood the power of free samples and so offered many free gifts with his soap. With his soap product, he offered baking powder. He soon realized that baking powder was more popular and started selling that. With the baking powder, he offered free gum, and yes you guessed it, he realized that people loved gum. His new business was born. Wrigley realized something very special about free samples they are a no barrier way for customers to indicate their preferences. 

One of the most successful modern business based on free samples is Coca Cola. It is believed that at their inception there was a strong competition but by giving away large amounts of free product people fell in love with the product. Even today the company is known to produce a marketing campaign every so often that results in a lot of free Cola. It keeps customers coming back for me.

Free samples have been part of the business world since the business world was born. Companies are using our very nature to get us to purchase products and free samples are a key tool. The next time you take a free simple try and fight the urge to buy the product unless you actually want it of course.