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Why direct-to-consumer brands are experimenting with sampling programs

More internet-born brands are shelling out free samples to help consumers try before they buy.

Last Summer, Hero Cosmetics hired a truck to hand out free samples of sunscreen across New York and Los Angeles. (Photo: Hero Cosmetics)
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Inside Glossier’s newly opened store in London, shoppers have to follow the rules if they want to sample the products.

Alongside the neatly arranged Boy Brows and Stretch Concealers are tubs filled with single-use spoolie brushes and plastic spatulas. Customers are instructed to transfer the product onto one of these, and then to their skin (after sanitizing their hands, of course).

Post-pandemic, brands have been trying to figure out the best way to continue giving customers hands-on experiences with their products. With people more hygiene-conscious than ever, it could be that stacks of unsupervised in-store samples might be out (indeed, the Glossier sampling experience, and the waste that comes with it, leaves something to be desired). But there are plenty of other ways that brands can get testers into people’s hands.

Petaluma hands out free samples of kibble through its website, in exchange for some information about the customer’s pets. (Photo: Thingtesting)
How brands hand out freebies

Dog food brand Petaluma, for example, hands out free samples of kibble via its website, in exchange for some information about the customer’s pets. Tiny Organics, which sells baby food, has been known to pitch up in parks and venues around New York to let moms try its products.

Beauty brands such as Versed, Saie and Glossier have gone down the classic route of adding free sachets or minis to customers' orders for them to try, while the likes of Kinfield, superfood snack brand Gem and sleep aid business Sweet Dreams sell samples for a small fee. Tester kits that bundle together the different variations a product comes in — such as scents or flavors — are also a common feature of direct-to-consumer brands’ websites, allowing customers to figure out what they like best before placing their next order.

Some brands are instructing third parties to help them get small quantities of products out to consumers. Food and drink brands have been turning to “dark stores” and instant delivery apps to get a product or two in customers' hands, while platforms like SoPost (which has worked with CBD gummy brand Pollen), Odore and Sampler help brands run targeted sampling campaigns where customers receive free products in exchange for reviews or social media posts.

“As a new brand, you’re trying to differentiate your products in a sea of press articles and customer reviews. A tangible sample [can do that],” says Nichole Powell, the founder of outdoor skincare brand Kinfield, adding that samples are also handy tools to make customers who might know you for one product aware of what else you’re selling. “It’s important for us to get customers to try other categories in our brand,” she says.

Ju Rhyu, the cofounder of Hero Cosmetics, has run a number of experiments in free sampling, particularly with the brand's flagship Mighty Patch zit sticker product. “We knew that when someone tried it, they would be hooked on it,” she says. When the brand launched its own direct-to-consumer website in 2018 (previously, the products were sold via Amazon), it did so with a sampling campaign that saw it hand out “thousands” of free pimple patches.

Also in 2018, it ran a cross-brand sampling program where customers could opt to add free samples from other brands to their cart while shopping on the Hero website. While the experiment revealed some interesting data points — people who like Hero’s products tend to prefer free chewing gum over foaming cleansers, according to Glossy — Rhyu says it became too much of an administrative burden to manage sampling on behalf of other brands. Hero has also sent out samples of its products via subscription sampling services such as Birchbox.

Last summer, Hero ran its most extravagant sampling campaign yet, hiring a food truck so it could tour New York and Los Angeles, handing out free ice creams and 5,500 sunscreen samples.

Putting samples to work

Samples aren’t just a way for brands to demonstrate generosity — they’re about convincing as many people as possible to not only try, but buy a product.

Rhyu says that samples tend to work best for products where the user can get some form of instant gratification; perhaps a flavor sensation, the whiff of a killer scent or the feel of a skincare product's beautiful texture. Products that can be tested in a single dose — think food, drinks, sunscreen — are also good to hand out in small portions.

For brands that have primarily built their businesses online, giving customers the opportunity to test out unfamiliar products in real life is an important part of the sales process. According to one widely cited survey, as many as 35% of people who try a free sample of a product then go on to buy it — although the brands Thingtesting spoke to for this story put that conversion rate closer to 20% for their sampling activities.

“We can see that people are coming back and buying our products again, and [samples] shorten that gap to purchase,” says Roger Dupé, the founder of unisex skincare brand Melyon, which sells a $35 discovery set that contains mini versions of its core skincare line. “Maybe one consumer wants to try, take their time, and then come back before they purchase [a full size]. Others purchase straight away. It’s human behavior, and it’s hard to target. That’s why we want to be able to create that balance.”

And it’s not always customers that brands are targeting with their sampling campaigns. Powell says that instead of business cards, Kinfield has handed out sachets of sunscreen at trade shows, while U.K. scented candle brand Good Candles says that it’s common for retailers to purchase sample kits before deciding whether or not to stock the full-sized candles.

Kinfield’s offers 0.8oz miniature bottles as samples. (Photo: Thingtesting)
The economics of free samples

Free samples may be good at converting shoppers and wholesalers into buyers, but brands have to run the numbers before they can start selling miniature versions of all their products.

Packaging has to be ordered in minimum quantities, meaning that it is often financially impossible for a brand to offer free samples from its first day in business. Manufacturers also require that the production of whatever’s going inside a sachet be tied to a run of full-sized products, making things more expensive. As a brand grows (and can make more informed predictions about how free samples might improve their bottom line), a common first step is to start selling tester-size versions of products, priced at a lower profit margin, or to break even.

Good Candles introduced its sampler kits 11 months after launching. “The challenge for us was that we wanted a nicely printed, bespoke box. To do that, we had to hit a volume north of 500 units,” says founder Olly Rzysko. “Otherwise we would be selling them at a loss. Storing those boxes is quite a job, and [space] is not always something you’re rich in when you first start.”

Brands also have to weigh up whether to spend more on packaging that is in keeping with its wider product ranges, or go for a cheaper option that doesn't quite have the same feel. Kinfield’s 0.8oz miniature bottles are currently made of plastic, a ubiquitous packaging material that can be purchased at low cost, although Powell says the brand has now reached sufficient scale that it can soon switch over to a post-consumer recycled plastic version.

“[We’re] trying to balance that as a sustainable brand, while also recognizing that [samples are] a wonderful tool for someone to try a new product,” she says.

“Sachets would be cheaper,” says Dupé, referring to the miniature glass jars that Melyon uses in its sample kits. “But it’s not that environmentally friendly. I think it’s important to stand by the vision and our ethos — it doesn’t matter if it’s a sample.”