Free food samples are back, but with safety in mind

Grocery chains in the U.S. are bringing back sampling as COVID restrictions start to ease, but safety protocols remain in place
Costco wholesale warehouse shopping aisle with food testing

When Pat Curry spotted bite-sized wood-fire rotisserie chicken with portabella mushroom at her local Costco in early June, she felt "giddy." After a 14-month hiatus, free samples were back.

"It was one of the markers that told me that we turned a corner," said the 60-year-old who lives in Augusta, Georgia. "It's the little things that you do that were taken away, and now they're back."

When the pandemic was declared in March 2020, retailers worried about the potential spread of the coronavirus so they cut off free sampling of everything from food to makeup to toys. But now with vaccinations rolling out and the threat of COVID-19 easing in the U.S., stores like Costco are feeling confident enough to revive the longstanding tradition.

For customers, sampling makes it fun to shop and discover new items. For retailers, they're critical tools to keep shoppers coming back and battle against online retailers such as Amazon.

Food sampling converts browsers into buyers at a 20% higher rate than if customers weren't allowed to test, said NPD Group Inc., a market research firm. The conversion rate is 30% higher when beauty products are sampled.

"Sampling is critical,'' said Marshal Cohen, NPD's chief industry analyst. "Impulse alone drives 25% of the retail business."

Jake Tavello, a senior vice-president at Stew Leonard's, said promoting new items had been challenging without sampling, a tradition started by his grandfather who founded the regional grocery chain in 1969. Sales of a new item pink glow pineapple were okay this past spring, for example, but have tripled since demonstrations were reintroduced.

"When people taste it, that's what can makes people want to buy it and decide what they want to eat for dinner," Tavello said.

But while sampling is back, it's not clear if everyone is ready to bite. With that in mind, some retailers are putting various safety protocols in place to ease any safety concerns.

At Costco, masked workers prepare the hot and cold samples behind Plexiglass counters and distribute to its members one at a time. Stew Leonard's also brought back hot samples with similar safety measures.

Meanwhile, Walmart and its wholesale club division Sam's Club are only serving pre-sealed food samples. And Sam's Club is limiting to sampling on the weekend. Target said staffed food and beverage sampling had remained on pause since March 2020, but it had been allowing self-service sampling of individually wrapped items.

Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University, said handling and eating food has not been a major route for the spread of COVID-19. But food sampling can lead to people congregating together, and that increases the risk of transmission. He also pointed to concerns about food sampling that go beyond the coronavirus: "Multiple hands grabbing samples can lead to the spread of germs, while contaminated gloves can also disperse unwanted bacteria."

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