The crisp cool air shocks my body from the stifling heat outside as I walk through doors of the huge building before me.  I begin wandering the aisles, smelling the delicious scents of freshly cooked samples.  I eagerly search for these stands scattered around the store, and quickly begin to consume a wide variety of delicacies—until I am pleasantly satisfied.  At the end of this wonderful experience, I think to myself “now this is the true Costco experience.”

Free samples enhance the customer experience, at least mine, but why exactly does Costco give out free samples?  Isn’t that a waste of their money?

Psychological studies have found that free samples have a strong impact on our subconscious in what is known as the reciprocity norm.  The reciprocity norm essentially follows the concept of mutual goodwill.  Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University, said that, “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.”  Just look at how free samples have impacted sales at Costco in 2014 below!

 Average Percentage Increase in Sales After Product Samples in the Past Year, by Product Type


Businesses use many techniques in addition to or besides free samples to take advantage of the reciprocity norm.  For example, mints or candy are given with your check by servers at restaurants.  A study done by Robert Cialdini found that when servers brought one mint with the check, a tip increased by about 3.3%.  He then found that when servers brought two mints with the check, the tip increased about 20%.  Other ways that business establish reciprocity can be as simple as a free desktop background or even a hand-written note.

So, now the real question is: Are free samples actually free?