Why Costco Gives Free Samples

People possess a strong reciprocity instinct and are much more likely to purchase a product if they've taken a free sample.

Joe Pinsker examines “The Psychology Behind Costco’s Free Samples” for The Atlantic. The whole piece is worth a read but this excerpt answers the question:

It’s true that free samples help consumers learn more about products, and that they make retail environments more appealing. But samples are operating on a more subconscious level as well. “Reciprocity is a very, very strong instinct,” says Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University. “If somebody does something for you”—such as giving you a quarter of a ravioli on a piece of wax paper—“you really feel a rather surprisingly strong obligation to do something back for them.”

Ariely adds that free samples can make forgotten cravings become more salient. “What samples do is they give you a particular desire for something,” he says. “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.”

I’m clearly an outlier, in that I’m a regular Costco customer (a store opened half a mile from my home about a year ago and I do the bulk of my food shopping there) but hardly ever take samples. I know I’m not going to buy frozen pizza rolls, so don’t bother tasting them. Most of the time, when the sampled food would otherwise appeal to me, it’s a product I’ve already purchased in the past and see no need to taste it again in the store. And I’m perfectly willing not to buy something that I’ve sampled if I don’t like it or don’t think it’s a good value.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mu says:

    Sometimes you get surprised, who’d thought a frozen humus patty could be something imminently edible.

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    I used to be a big Costco shopper but now that it’s just me I rarely go there anymore – what does one male need with 40 rolls of toilet paper or a 25 pound bag of rice. Even when I shopped there frequently I don’t remember every trying the “free” samples.

  3. Tyrell says:

    I go to another big warehouse store that does samples a lot on weekends. It depends on the sample. I have rarely purchased food items based on a sample.
    In some cases, the samples were more than just a smidgeon. There have been whole bags of popcorn, regular 12 oz coffee, even whole hot dogs !

  4. ernieyeball says:

    Got me some free french fries on a Monopoly ticket from McDonalds the other day. The week before coffee was free no purchase necessary. The official promotion was free Mickey Mud during breakfast hours. Local outlets in Sleepytown gave it away 24/7. The Buy One Get One Free Quarter Pounder W/Cheese or Egg McMuffin promo on the receipts has been going on for some time now.
    I have seen that in several states.
    The WiFi is always free!
    I don’t know how they ever make any money!?!?

  5. MarkedMan says:

    I’m with you James. Although I occasionally take a taste, I don’t think I’ve ever bought something I’ve tasted. Except in wine or beer stores. I’m going to buy something there anyway or I wouldn’t have come in, and it may as well be the one I tasted that I like.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    Yep. I’ve never taken a sample. But I love Costco. When I bought a convertible I pushed my wife to get an SUV, the major motivator being that my car just won’t handle the giant Costco quantities. My car will not handle the 55 gallon drum of Nutella.

  7. Scott says:

    When the kids were little, I used to love to go to Costco and graze. The kids try new things and it makes an outing out of the chore of shopping. Never really induced me to buy the items if I didn’t want to but it was fun nonetheless.

    BTW, the psychology is exactly the same by the home shopping parties such as Pampered Chef, etc. Obligation to buy something is the emotion desired.

  8. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    Saturday and Sunday are the free samples days in Korea. But I never sample anything–the lines to sample are too long. Costco? Been there 4 total times in my life–including two visits in Korea.

    Funny thing, the “need” to be able to buy large quantities of things seems to be connected to the economic power to do so. Most lower income people that I have known never go to Costco or Sam’s Club–can’t afford the membership fee.

  9. Sherparick says:

    A better man than I am, as I am an unrepentant COSTCO browser. I figure they make it back in my membership fee and wine and beer purchases:-)

  10. Sherparick says:

    Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (Smith’s lesser known, but perhaps better book) talks a bit of this phenomena, our little inner voice (at least for those who are not sociopaths and psychopaths) that wants to think well of ourselves and hence loathes the image of the “freeloader.” Where Smith hints at (but does not quite reach) and modern anthropology strongly argues that origin of trade comes from the gift rituals that homo sapiens came up with during are evolution to ever larger tribal units.

  11. T says:

    IMO, the best part about shopping at costco is the knowledge that they treat their employees like actual human beings.


    “It’s not news that Costco treats its employees well, especially when compared to other retailers. Costco CEO and President Craig Jelinek has come out in support of raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and said in 2013 that the company pays a “starting hourly wage of $11.50 in all states where we do business.”

    About 88 percent of Costco workers reportedly have company-sponsored health insurance, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

    “I just think people need to make a living wage with health benefits,” Jelinek has said. “It also puts more money back into the economy and creates a healthier country. It’s really that simple.”