Updated on 10.19.09

Ethical Frugality Week: Free Samples

Trent Hamm

Over the upcoming week, I’ll be posting a series of articles on the ethics of frugality. How far can you take things without crossing an ethical line or diving into seriously socially unacceptable waters? I’ll be recounting some of my own stories – and some stories from readers – along the way.

A few weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine told me that they’ll often go to grocery stores, go around to every sample stand in the store twice or three times, and call that good enough for their Saturday lunch. Do they also buy groceries there? “Not usually,” she said. “That store’s prices are too high.”

Is this type of attitude right or wrong?

On the one hand, the store is giving away the samples. They expect customers to walk up, take one, and try the wares on offer. The whole point is to give these samples away, so I might as well take the samples, regardless.

On the other hand, the sample giveaway implicitly assumes a few things. It assumes that you’re actually a customer of the store, there to buy things. Sometimes, it also assumes that you have some interest in purchasing the sampled product.

In the end, though, I don’t really think it’s appropriate to go into a business, eat their freebies, and leave, with no intent whatsoever of purchasing an item.

Society is built around value exchanges. In the case of samples, the store is giving one value – a free sample – in exchange for another – being a customer and/or being a potential buyer of that item. If you’re just walking in to gobble samples, you’re neither one of these.

Here’s an analogy. Imagine a friend of yours stops by. He walks into your home, opens up your refrigerator, and grabs a bite to eat – that’s often okay if it’s a close friend. But what if they then just walk out your front door without sitting down to chat with you? That’s blatantly rude.

Why is it rude? It violates a simple value exchange, the kind that society operates on. You don’t mind giving your friend some food, but you expect some conversation and friendship in return for it. By just walking out, your friend is not living up to his end of the unspoken bargain.

Society operates on such unspoken bargains. Traffic operates in this way. Almost all interpersonal relationships work in this way. Workplaces operate in this way. Without these unspoken bargains, society collapses.

What do you think? Is the idea of free samples at a grocery store really such an unspoken bargain? Is it a situation where people should feel fine walking in and taking samples without even thinking about it?

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  1. George says:

    Is it ethical for free samples to be given out in the hopes you’ll be hooked and provide future sales?

    After all, drug pushers are said to work that way…

  2. Who pays for the free samples, the food company or the store? If it’s the company, then your friend must have SOME sort of interest in the product. After all, he goes back for seconds and thirds! While he might not buy it at that store, maybe he’ll go to the discount store and buy the same product. If the store pays for the free samples, he’s giving back nothing of value.

  3. Swap Savers says:

    I think this example is the exception and not the rule. Most people see free samples while they are shopping as a “bonus” and do not go to the store just to receive the free sample. If everyone did what your friend does then they would not be able to offer free samples anymore.

  4. BirdDog says:

    Free sample lunches are ridiculous. Do people not realize the germs they are exposing themselves to? Everyone reaching in the same bin, ugh. I like to save where I can, but this is ridiculous. Stay at home and eat your own food.

  5. Josh says:

    Companies should really crack down on behavior like this. Ban them from the store and tell them they will be charged with trespassing if they come back again. They obviously aren’t customers worth having.

  6. Kevin M says:

    I’m fine with what your friend does, to me it’s just another form of advertising.

    I don’t think the store assumes you’re a customer, they only assume you are a POTENTIAL customer.

  7. Ali says:

    I don’t feel guilty about NOT buying at a store where I have tasted a sample, but I do NOT let my kids (or myself) have more than one helping of a sample item.

    As far as going to a particular store just to eat the samples, with no intention of buying, I am a little torn. Our local furniture store often has sales where they offer free hot dogs for people who come in. It is a promotional thing and although they hope you’ll buy something they realize that not everybody will make a purchase that day. However, this kind of promotion is worth it to them because customers are more likely to remember their store when in the market for furniture. (The kids remember that store better, too!)

  8. Colin says:

    Sounds like we need to bail out the sample stations.

  9. Kayla says:

    Free samples are not a social contract–they’re about creating profit for the store.

    Even if you _think_ you have no intention of buying something at the store, the store benefits by getting you inside the store, exposed to its products. So you are giving the store an opportunity to promote itself, whether you like it or not.

    I think in general, the store realizes most people who take a free sample will not buy the sampled item–and some people will take a free sample and not buy _anything_. The store still finds giving free samples to be a profitable practice–and if they think they benefit from it, who am I to disagree?

  10. It’s all about marketing and developing a relationship with you, the customer.

  11. Jane says:

    I don’t think what she is doing is unethical, but I think it’s a little strange. Unless she’s really struggling financially, can’t she find something better to eat at home? I personally wouldn’t enjoy a meal like that – random bites of food that probably don’t complement each other. That said, sometimes we will plan our shopping at Sam’s at a time when they tend to have samples. But we are members and we spend tons of money there.

  12. Karen says:

    I really see nothing wrong with this, and if the sample offerers did they would likely do something about it. They don’t (right?) so clearly they think it’s not worth the time and effort to crack down on a few people who take a bunch of samples.

  13. Brad says:

    I think it’s ethically wrong. I won’t try something unless I am already fairly interested in it.

    Taking product to eat for lunch with little intent on purchasing said product or anything else in the vicinity? I think it’s petty theft, but that’s just me.

  14. KC says:

    Where are these places? My local grocery has a few samples – 2 fruits, 3 breads with spreads, 1 meat, 1 cheese, 1 small cookie, but I can’t make a meal out of that – even if I went through 2 or 3 times. Fresh Market has some samples, but again – can’t make a meal of that. Anyway, I think your friend is in the minority. Most people are shopping there anyway and see the samples as an added touch. I see the same people taking samples throughout the store, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone eating enough to make a meal of it.

  15. Mister E says:

    I don’t really think there’s anything particularly unethical about this behaviour.

    I think this person has more free time than sense though.

  16. Kat says:

    Nevermind issue of whether this is a social contract or not, going somewhere with the express and sole purpose of taking multiple ‘free’ samples feels dishonest to me. Besides, “sample” implies “one”! The point Trent keeps making in this blog is that saving money is important, but it is NOT the be-all and end-all! I would tend to view someone who behaves as the subject of this tale as being rather Scrooge-like!

    The only time I would back off of this view is in the case of someone in real, serious need – who might not eat at all otherwise.

  17. partgypsy says:

    I don’t know if it is “unethical” but it is certainly poor manners, in particular the going back 2, 3 times until he is full. Keep your dignity and go to garbage picking. It reminds me of the kids trick or treating going back to the same house for seconds and thirds.

  18. PJ says:

    …and by the way, traffic does NOT work by unspoken bargain. There are very specific, written rules guiding traffic laws.

  19. David says:

    Two quick rules I usually use to determine if my actions are good:

    Golden Rule: If someone else was doing this to me, would I be OK with it?
    -In this particular case, I can’t be 100% sure. My first assumption is that stores give these samples away to promote and lure customers. Your friend in the example, for all purposes, is still being promoted and lured. He/she is living up to their end of the bargain. If stores assumed one sample would equal one purchase, they’d quickly realize it wouldn’t work and stop the promotion. This rule could be argued either way so I’ll move on to the next one.

    “Others” Rule: If everyone in the world did the same actions as me, would it be OK, and would the world be better or worse?
    -This is where I think your friend goes wrong. By deliberately abusing the opportunity he/she’s given to taste tests before purchasing, he/she can ruin it for those people who truly value the sample. I see this as taking away from both the store AND other customers. And for what reason? To take only for his/herself with disregard to others.

    My conclusion: the actions are not ethical.

  20. ETF says:

    Minor ethical lapse. There are different forms of unethical behavior, some worse than others.

    If this person is having serious financial difficulties I wouldn’t consider it an unethical lapse.

    If, as I assume, she is not having financial problems, it’s just being kind of mean. I think the test is whether the entity being hurt has the power to get her to stop, if they wanted to. If she is able to intimidate the store owner somehow, it would become a major ethical problem.

  21. JB says:

    The store expects to give free samples, so one sample of each product per person is okay but deliberately going and getting 2-3 of each sample to try and have some sort of hodge podge lunch is not okay. Especially if it’s a store you don’t frequent. Another case of (bum bum bum), frugality gone too far!

  22. archirat says:

    I really like your post David. It feels a little Immanuel Kant-esque. Can this person suppose the same rule for everyone?

    In this case, I believe that this person is doing something unethical. If everyone were to take free samples with no intent of purchase, no free samples would be offered. This person is benefiting from a system in which they are the exception, not the rule.

    I have found that there are occasional free samples at my grocery store. I felt no qualm about accepting the fresh tomatoes, because I have no doubt that I will buy them in the future. However, I did not accept a sandwich because I knew that I would not ever buy that brand of sandwich. I am perhaps a little strict in that aspect of my moral code.

  23. Rob says:

    Just another case of someone abusing a system.

  24. cv says:

    @KC – This sounds like Whole Foods to me. They often have samples of fruits, cheeses, prepared foods, chips, crackers, dips, jams or sauces, and other things. They’re also more expensive than the typical grocery store.

    I think @David has the right idea on this one. If everyone did it, it would mean no more samples for anyone. Kind of like the reasons parks tell you not to take pine cones from forests and sand from beaches. Your action doesn’t seem like much, but it all adds up.

  25. Johanna says:

    @David, archirat, cv: “If everyone did it, it would be no good” is *not* a sufficient reason to conclude that an action is wrong.

    For example, if everyone applied for the specific job you want, that would be no good, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply for it yourself. For another example, if everyone bought only used cars (or used CDs, or used books, or used clothes), that would be no good, because every used item must have been a new item at some point, but that’s not a reason for you not to buy only used items yourself, if you want to.

    And for an example very similar to the situation at hand: If everyone went to a grocery store and bought only the loss leaders (or items that are on sale, which often makes them loss leaders), then obviously the store would not be able to stay in business (or at least would not be able to continue to offer loss leaders). Are you really prepared to say that it’s unethical to fill your shopping cart with items that are on sale?

  26. Randa says:

    I’ve not yet read all of the responses. However, I’m of the opinion that it’s fine to participate in enjoying the samples. Two reasons:

    1) Typically I find that such samples are offered at club stores. As such, you’ve purchased a membership to the store – WHETHER OR NOT YOU BUY ANOTHER THING.
    2) As you walk past, you’re offered a sample – not asked if you’re in the market for that particular product. Besides, who knows – even if you DON’T purchase the item at that time, you may end up buying it at some point in time.

  27. Robin says:

    I think it’s fine to get one of each sample, but not more than that. Even if you aren’t buying anything, the store has the opportunity to expose you to their products.

    I often plan Sam’s trips for Saturday afternoon – prime sample time :)

  28. archirat says:

    @ Johanna
    I am perfectly willing to admit of my behavior of buying used cars is unethical, in the philosophical sense of Immanuel Kant’s ideas on Universal Law. I am benefiting by being an exception to the rule regarding a system of buying cars.

    As for my grocery cart, I think I might have to know you a little better before I allow myself to divulge what I shop for.

  29. kristine says:

    I have to admit, I also did this when I was desperately poor and hungry. And any college kid in NY can tell you what bars have the free buffet, and on what nights.

    But as a solvent adult, there has to be at least a remote chance that I am willing to buy the goods, even if in the future. Otherwise it just feels sleazy.

  30. David says:

    I’ll take your examples one at a time.

    Job Hunting: If everyone applied for the specific job I wanted, chances are the company would find the best person available for that position. Would that make the world a better place? Possibly. Would that make the company better? Most likely. The only downside of this argument is a personal, selfish reason: _I_ want that job and I’m less likely to get it now. I could even argue that it makes _me_ better: I now have to work harder to better myself to compete. How is this wrong? I don’t think your example works here.

    Used Media: If everyone bought used media, would that be OK and would the world be better off? This is a question of value. If everyone only bought used, then consumers would obviously only value used versus new. This would assume that new is overpriced for what it offers (plastic wrapping, that new-CD smell, new releases). The business model that provides these products would have to change to make money; the best way for that would be to lower prices or provide alternative methods of delivery that consumers find valuable. The market would dictate something closer to the values of the consumers. Could this not be argued as better? You could also go the other way and say that as demand for used media rose, so does price, which would eventually match new and the problem goes away. I don’t see how the example in this case would make the world worse off; please enlighten me if you disagree.

    Loss leaders and Sale Items: Excellent analogy. It made me think: what if the samples _weren’t_ free, but cost $.01. Would I still consider it unethical? My conclusion was no. My reasoning:

    By offering the sample for free, I consider it a gift. A free service given to me (although with ulterior motives, but then again what gift doesn’t have them?). By taking more than intended, and with no intention to repay the gift, I become a taker and never a giver. If everyone was the same, I believe the world becomes worse off.

    However, if the sample offered cost me only a penny, I would consider (rightly or wrongly) it as a mutual exchange: I give something and the store gives me something in return. In my mind, I win (I got a sausage on a stick for a PENNY!), but the store also values the deal (I’ve got a potential new customer for only a sausage and a toothpick!), otherwise the transaction would never take place. Aren’t all buying/selling exchanges this way? Think of stocks: both the seller and the buyer think they are making the right move, but there can be only one!

    The difference in my mind is that taking something for free without even the _intent_ of giving something back is inherently bad; I wouldn’t want everyone in the world to operate that way. When both the customer and grocer think they are getting the good end of the deal, then what harm is there in that?

  31. BD says:

    Like others have said, free samples are there as advertising for the brand being offered. The company who manufactures said brand of sample WANTS you take one, whether you have any intention of buying or not, because they want you to try it, and perhaps you’ll consider it in the future (or love it so much, you buy it right then and there, even though you originally had no intention of doing so).

    The problem isn’t that this person is going through sampling everything…the problem lies that they are doing it 2 and 3 times per sample booth. I’m pretty sure the sample booths would prefer a “ONE per customer per day” policy in order to ensure that as many people as possible are able to get a sample.

    While it may not be considered ‘stealing’ in the technical sense (the person manning the sample booth is free to say “NO” to the freeloader), it probably is considered highly tacky, greedy and very boorish. Miss Manners would most likely not approve.

  32. leslie says:

    Aside from being unethical, it also seems just plain silly. Taking the time (and gas) to drive to a store just to waste 30 minutes walking around and eating the (probably not very good or healthy) store samples. Just stay home and make sandwiches.

  33. guinness416 says:

    Whatever about ethics (and I doubt the food company cares that he’s taking an extra tiny little cup of ice cream) this series so far is really making the “frugal = cheap” opinion start to seem reasonable. I mean, enduring screaming kids and fluorescent lights and all the other junk that goes with a supermarket trip to get a few cups of sneezed-over microwaved pasta or additive-filled yoghurt? Stealing a towel that may have been used to mop up a pool deck? These people are gross.

  34. Sassy says:

    I have to thank you for an extremely lively dinner conversation this evening. We (H,Son, self) did not resolve the issue (at least not in a way we all agreed on) but we had a great time parsing out what we thought was acceptable/unacceptable behavior and where the lines are drawn. For the record “tacky” we all agreed on; “unethical” was the dividing line in opinions.

  35. valletta says:

    This reminds me of a funny story :)
    I own a restaurant and years ago we were hosting a private party in the restaurant, with passed hors d’oeuvres, music, flowing wine.
    I noticed an older gentleman, partly because he was wearing an ascot (!) and that he wasn’t actually talking with anyone else at the party, just eating and drinking, commenting on how wonderful the food was…
    About an hour into the party, the honored guest came up to me and said “Is he a friend of yours? None of us know that man”
    I politely asked the gentleman his connection to the party and he honestly told me “none”, he crashes parties as a hobby :)

  36. Bonnie says:

    This is a great topic and one that I think about every time I’m at Costco on the weekend. I don’t think that eating store samples is unethical, even if you don’t plan on buying anything, because the point of the samples is that the store or the food manufacturer is hoping you’ll taste something you just “have to” buy in the future. At Costco, the samples are generally different each weekend. So, you never know if you’ll find a new food you like.

    I do think it’s unethical to circle the store 2-3 times with the hopes that the sampler won’t notice that you’ve returned. If it weren’t unethical, wouldn’t it be more efficient to just stand there and take multiple “samples” until you’re full? Also, the idea of a “sample” is that you’re tasting the food. Once you’ve had one sample, you already know what the food tastes like. You shouldn’t need to take 2 or 3 bites (unless you’re a food critic writing a review).

    Even more irritating than the circlers is the parents who stand back, but tell their kids to rush the sample booth, cutting in front of all the adults waiting patiently for the sample, and take multiple samples for mom or dad, plus all the kids. If parents wouldn’t think to be so rude themselves, why encourage such behavior in their children?

  37. Kari says:

    tacky maybe – unethical, not. There is a lot of reseach that goes into the sample industry. It’s no accident that product is in that store on that day. It is possible to target the demographic a CPG company is after & place demos in stores with a highly poplulated segment of that target market. Other studies show measurable sales lift up to 20 weeks AFTER a demo has been exectued in a store for entire brand families – not just the actual sampled product – sampling is a very real part of the advertising mix for just about all consumer packged goods. Take the samples, eat the samples – whether you plan on purchasing or not, you just might surprise yoursef at some point in the next 20 weeks (full disclosure – I work in the sample industry…yes, there is a whole industry related to handling out samples at your local grocery store)

  38. Four Pillars says:

    I wish you would stick to more obvious scenarios like stolen hotel towels – I had to think about this one.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with going for free samples although as Jane (#11) noted – it is very strange.

    Stores and food companies put out the advertising to get customers – whether that advertising is tv ads, flyers or free samples it doesn’t matter – if they sell enough product to justify the ad then they continue.

    Guinness (#33) – you must shop at the same time as my wife and kids. :)

  39. spaces says:

    Free samples have an allure for me these days; money is tight since I’m trying to unload an extra house while changing my professional activities such that there’s a 6-12 month lag between when I do work and when I get paid for work. There’s just no room in the budget for fancy cheese (and how I do love fancy cheese). Plus, my 8 month old child is learning to eat and wants to taste everything. Samples are super big fun for her!

    I try to always buy something if I’m snacking on samples in a certain high-end grocery store. Even if its a dollar demi loaf or a couple of jars of babyfood (and sometimes it is).

    On the other hand, if I’m snacking at the warehouse store where I pay for a membership, I don’t feel any need to purchase anything.

  40. Shevy says:

    Interesting question for a couple of reasons. From an Orthodox Jewish point of view it’s not permitted to lead someone on and make them think you’re going to buy something from them if you’re not. So, I wouldn’t take samples of a food I knew I was never going to buy (even if it was kosher).

    On the other hand, the people who demonstrate the products are responsible for them. It’s like a contract or something; they aren’t employees of that food company. Today they’re handing out salsa and tortilla chips. Tomorrow, it’s orange juice. Next week it could be cocktail sausages.

    I’ve known 2 people now who do this and one of them recently gave my office a whole bunch of (kosher) coffee single serving things that fit this special coffeemaker we have, along with little cups, sugar packets, etc. It was all the stuff that was left after she finished her shift and she was just supposed to throw it away or take it home.

    She didn’t have one of those coffeemakers and she couldn’t bear to throw it all out (there were several *boxes*), so she gave it to us.

    Couple that with the comments of Kari (above @ 8:28 pm) about the sample industry, and you’ve certainly got some more to think about….

    Oh, and how’s this for a strange reaction from a demonstrator? I go to Costco maybe 2 or 3 times a year with my Eldest Daughter, who has a membership, and when I was there once I saw someone demonstrating a new kind of cracker or flatbread. The kind she had open was not kosher but 2 other flavours were. I asked to try one of the kosher ones but she said she couldn’t open the box until the first one was finished. I explained I couldn’t try that one but if I liked either of the other ones I’d buy them today. She said no. I wonder what Kari’s statistics show about the buying patterns of people who were told to go away and maybe come back in an hour….

  41. @Trent – I love this series! I’m picturing your acquaintance at Whole Foods, scarfing down their premium delectables, and just walking out empty-handed but with a full stomach. As to Kari’s point (#37), all of this is extremely calculated in large stores.

    However, some stores allow locals to come in to sell their stuff and if my mom was out there with her rum cakes, I’d be a little irritated if someone stopped by three times and didn’t buy anything. Of course, my mom’s old school and would call them on it anyway and in a not so discreet way:)

  42. @36 Bonnie- Exactly. If the behavior was ethical, the person would simply stand in one place, take lots of “samples” and move to the next cart, no shame. The fact is this person purposefully disguises her behavior. As a teacher, I can tell you that if it looks like deception, it usually is.

    I think that this issue comes down to how you live your life every day. Are you someone who tries to take what you haven’t earned? To deceive others as to your intentions?

    No big deal to try a sample of something you feel you are unlikely to purchase. That’s why they have samples: they are trying to create a demand in you.

    What companies and stores are NOT trying to do is provide lunch for skinflints.

    I am a SUPER tightwad, so I say these things not as someone who justifies spending too much by blaming it on “not being tacky.” I cook 95% of everything we eat from scratch, we cloth diaper, line dry, etc. I will try almost anything once, and I am a student of the Tightwad Gazette.

    But I will not try something that clearly shifts my costs onto others. In this case, the individual is trying to get the store to provide her lunch.

    And as a curmudgeon: it drives me INSANE when people at TSD justify stealing/skimming/cost-shifting with the whole “times are tight” etc. It would be better to go hungry than to do something dishonest. (And now I sound like Rorschach, “Never compromise.”)

  43. Kris says:

    Ethical or not, who really has the time to go to a store they have no intention of buying anything from just to wander around and hope for little samples? Yeah, sounds like someone is living the dream there.

  44. anne says:

    wasn’t this a lily tomlin tv special?

    i remember her maybe 20 or 30 years ago in her switchboard operator character showing the audience how to eat lunch for free at the grocery store

    i don’t remember all of her tips, but at the deli counter she kept asking for samples of the cold cuts

  45. Kate says:

    I realize that this is only an opinion but my reaction to this series of articles on frugality is negative. Sure it is getting a lot of replies because everyone has an opinion but the examples are so black and white that there really is no thinking involved. I’ll be glad when this series of articles is over.

  46. David says:

    A book recently came out that threw away all the rules when it came to saving money. The site where I read about it actually had a contest-whoever submitted the most down-low, unethical way to save oney would win a copy of the book.

    All entertaining, but hardly something I would subscribe to.

    From time to time, I may get away with using an expired coupon or two, but that is about it.

    Crossing over the ethcial line to save money just isn’t worth it to me, and probably gives off a good bit of bad karma.

  47. EF says:

    Cheap, tacky and abusive to the system. Have people lost all common sense these days?

  48. Kyle says:

    I suspect these articles are intentionally provocative to provoke discussion.

  49. bellneice says:

    Sadly, I find discussions of ethical behavior a waste of time, because everyone, in their own mind, is convinced that their choices are ethical and right. And no amount of discussion will change their minds. Their perspective of their own behavior is virtually cemented.
    If Trent had expressed his opinion about the actions of the couple who saved money by eating out of sample bins (what happens when they don’t like this weeks samples?) they would have been astounded. And after chuckling at his ideas, they would have continued to do what they had always done.

  50. reulte says:

    Kate (45) I am enjoying this series of articles. The examples can’t be so black and white simply because there is a lot of discussion.

    On store samples ….

    Birddog (4) You don’t just “dig into bins” – ewyew – the samples are usually little cut cubes with a toothpick or served individually on a napkin.

    KC (14) Actually, your description of “2 fruits, 3 breads with spreads, 1 meat, 1 cheese, 1 small cookie” can be construed as a light meal even if only a cube of each; more so if you go back for 2nds and 3rds.

    I don’t find this behavior unethical – basically Kari’s (37) explanation covers what I’ve believed this entire time about ‘free’ samples. I’ve gone around and taken samples myself; even asked for 2nds once in a great while though I know I won’t buy the item that day and possibly never.

    In the terms of value exchange – you get the freebie and the business gets you into the store with their product in front of your eyes. That’s all they require. Consider a single 8-pack of hot dogs cut into 4 bits per ‘dog’ which puts the brand name into the mouths of from 9 (people getting 3rds) to 32 (only a single serving each) people. One package – up to 32 new customers.

  51. While I agree with many of the others about the behavior as being questionable, and in poor taste, I would also like to pose another reason for its unethicality (is that a word?).

    Sure, if you are shopping in the store, I think it is fine to try any or all of the samples, regardless of whether you have any intention of buying those items. However, if you are entering the store only for the purpose of eating those samples, then that is wrong. I know that part is the dead horse that so many above were beating… now, the other perspective:

    What if more people started doing the same behavior? What if every time the store offered free samples, the patronage increased drastically, to make the store crowded, but at the same time, sales dropped significantly because people were not purchasing anything? The stores would quickly put a stop to this. Now, you are not only hurting the store, but you are punishing your fellow customers.

    There is a fine distinction between frugality and cheapness. Frugality is trying to save yourself money in a way that affects only you, or others close to you who are of a like mind, and in agreement. Cheapness is a self-centered behavior that insults and hurts those around you. Please think about how your actions will affect others before you act.

  52. Jonathan says:


    I really enjoy these sorts of posts, primarily because of the comments from readers that it generates. After reading the post, I assumed that there would be no comments saying the behavior was acceptable. The comments show very well how people have such different viewpoints on the same topic.

    Personally, I do not think that it is okay to take more than one sample of the same item. I also do not think it is ok to visit a store for the sole purpose of acquiring samples. I am surprised that so many people condone the behavior. I have to wonder if it is that type of behavior that causes people to view frugality in a negative way.

  53. Dawn says:

    I think it is in poor taste, pardon the pun. I do think it is unethical, and clearly in some ways your friend knows it. Why else would they circle the store? If they were totally comfortable with their behavior, wouldn’t they just stand there and fill up rather than resorting to subterfuge?

    As an aside – I like your series on ethics. I think it is because we mostly assume our actions our correct we would be better served to actually ponder fairness from time to time and in this type of forum we are given an opportunity to share our different perspectives. Perhaps with those perspectives in the back of our minds in our day to day dealings we may actually flex from our own norm and make better decisions. Wouldn’t it be a better world if the AIG / Tyco’s etc., had spent a little more time pondering ethics as well?

  54. Andy says:

    This series has really broadened my perspective thanks to the variety of comments…I understand that some people may see these sorts of ethical discussions as being pointless, perhaps since there may be no one “right” conclusion, but in each one I’ve had at least one “hey, I never thought of it that way” or “hey, I never knew that” moment. One general principle that this has reinforced for me is to not be too judgemental of others even if I have a strong initial opinion as to whether something is right or wrong. Anyhow, thanks for the series, and thanks to everyone for the comments!

  55. Adam says:

    Unethical, and hugely tacky. Definitely on the frugal = cheap side. Ditto the husband stealing the towel. I wouldn’t want to be friends with people who drove to a grocery store with the sole intention of visiting the sample section over and over again for lunch and then leaving. Ridiculous.

  56. Little House says:

    Is your friend struggling financially to make ends meat? Do they have to do this in order to eat? That’s where I’m not sure if it’s unethical, tacky, or just bad manners.

    If you’re starving, you do what you need to do, regardless of ethics. If you’re not starving, you bring home an income, have a place to live, and can purchase food items, then this is just tacky and rude.

    By the way, I never eat samples because I’m freaked out by the small items just sitting there on the table. I’m not a complete germ-phobic, but this thing kind of creeps me out.

  57. C says:

    What if you found out you were being videotaped and your family and friends would be shown this tape? The one where you were standing around eating two or three helpings of samples or circling the store and stopping 3X for more samples and then leaving the store and not buying anything?

  58. kat says:

    Hmmm. I don’t think it’s unethical, though it does seem like kind of a waste of time. One of the grocery stores I frequent often offers samples of their cheese… and though I almost never buy cheese, I usually walk down that aisle when I’m there to buy other things, just to sample a few bites of interesting Gouda or somesuch.

    I used to feel slightly guilty about doing this all the time without ever buying anything (for YEARS), until one day I tried a sample of a goat cheese spread that was so amazing I just had to buy a container. Worse, now I’m hooked — every time I go to that store I’m tempted to buy that spread (and often do!).

    The stores are figuring that most people won’t follow through and actually buy something… so I don’t think taking advantage of it is at all unethical. They must see enough of an increase in sales from the small minority who do, to make it worthwhile. As others have said… businesses offer free treats in order to lure *potential* customers into their stores, or get them to try things they wouldn’t normally consider buying. You’re under no obligation if you accept.

    It sounds like your friend is either in dire financial straits, or thinks free samples are fun — and c’mon, don’t we all? Either way I don’t think it’s a big deal.

    Of course, ever since that one time I saw a filthy homeless person groping through the cheese cubes with her filthy unwashed hands, I haven’t really found the samples that appetizing. :/

  59. Often the sample pushers are working for the food company, not the store. The food company still gets its taste out there, which is it’s objective. But I would never go back for a second sample.

  60. Emily says:

    We try to plan our weekly trip to Costco on Saturday or Sunday afternoon because my kids LOVE the sample day. They do not go back for seconds – well unless it’s chocolate chip cookies :o) There’s nothing wrong with going if your intention is to buy something. I agree going with the sole purpose of getting free samples is strange – but I don’t think it’s unethical. They are called FREE for a reason – the food companies are paying for them.

  61. Catherine says:

    I post a fair amount of negative comments, so this one is just to say that I agree with you completely, Trent!

    Good manners include taking care not to appear piggy, and any child should have been taught that. Any adults not limiting themselves are going around discrediting their parents’ reputation.

  62. Lenore says:

    Considering that most food companies that can afford to set up a free sample display are conglomerates with multiple brands, any over-zealous samplers probably ARE their customers and might as well enjoy 14-cents worth of the latest pizza-flavored snack. I’ve gone back for more than one sample if I liked and was pretty sure I would end up buying the product. I’ve never set out to do the “free sample meal” thing, but I might if low on funds and in the neighborhood of a store like that. A “free” meal after yard sales on Saturday morning doesn’t sound too bad, and I’d even buy a soda from the over-priced supermarket to make up for taking up space. Even if every shopper gorged on free samples, it’s cheap and effective advertising. Companies pay millions of dollars for print, TV or radio ads that tell you little about the product. Why do you think fast food places occasionally do giveaways? If you can get a consumer at the point of purchase to taste something they may like, it’s a cinch that they’ll be back with either a hankering for the product or goodwill toward your company. Everybody stop overanalyzing and savor one of the few remaining perks of the crumbling capitalist infrastructure.

  63. Patty says:

    Forgive me if I repeat, not enough time to read all the comments at this moment…
    Does anyone’s opinion change if it is a store you pay a membership fee to (ie warehouse clubs)? My husband and I tend to go for snack time of ‘SAMSples” as we like to call them. We usually abide by the one per person but might stretch to two if we are undecided on the taste. We rarely buy the product (b/c its rarely good and usually doesn’t fit our food allergy, nutrition, budget needs) but on occasion I have picked up that item-oh that thick cut bacon and the yeast rolls! (We do this less often as we have discovered the food allergy part and very few products offered as free samples qualify now) Anyway, I’m almost conflicted on this. We are paying a membership to the store and tend to go more often at times more samples are offered. Its a store perk, it brings us in, we buy other overpriced items-it all balances our right?
    And I second the person that said ‘what if you buy it somewhere else’…its a warehouse store, if its a perisible item I really don’t need that big of a package. Samples help limit waste there too…you buy a whole pack then don’t like it, that makes you mad at the company even if you already like some of their other products.
    I also second the person about the furniture store. One of our furniture stores has cookies and ice cream. Its a service to the customer even if the customer doesn’t buy every time the window shop doesn’t mean the won’t buy. I don’t feel bad. Its like window shopping in the AC at the mall…is that stealing? Honestly though…its advertising. Do you feel guilty for looking at a billboard and not getting that item? What about that ad in the newspaper or that jingle you sing all day. It cost someone to design and publish that ad. A company is paying to market…they know some customers bite, some don’t.
    Ok, I’m rambling now. Nice article. Makes ya stop and think.

  64. Angela says:

    I really like this discussion. My initial response in unethical but due to some responses here I would allow taking of 2nds in situations sponsored by the food company if you would be open to the idea of purchasing their food at another store.

    On the other hand the grocery store I used to work at often sampled things ourselves too. For instance when we had 4 packs of cinnamon rolls on sale we would offer people half a cinnamon roll. There were the occasional people who would come up with 2 kids, each grabbing a whole rolls worth and wander off. At that point they’ve consumed an entire package worth though only a 1/2 package more than if they had properly sampled 1 each. But if it’s one person eating 4 rolls how is that different then taking a package off the shelf and eating it? We had plenty of people who would grab cookie packages off the shelf and help themselves to 2 or 3 if we didn’t have any samples. And due to contamination we would throw those packages away. My view is that sampling offers distinct advantages to each side. The customer doesn’t have to wonder about the quality of the product and is so more willing to buy (decreased risk) and we are more sure the customer will like it and therefore have a lower risk of them coming back the next day with a 3 left in the pack asking for their money back (and throwing away 3 cinnamon rolls).

    They did a health fair at work at the vision insurance company was giving out nice hard sided glasses cases with their name on it. We get a nice safe place to keep our glasses. They can hopefully save some money on replacements and advertise their services anywhere we’re using our glass cases. However several of my coworkers who have perfect vision hit the fair first to get first crack at all the samples and took all the cases for their sunglasses. The result was that several coworkers who do have prescription glasses through that insurance didn’t get them. Is that ethical?

    I’m still leaning towards unethical on the original situation though. They’re pushing the majority of their costs on other people who get nothing from the situation. The samplers aren’t getting their products to new customers, the store’s not getting sales and the other customers are getting increased crowds and an increased chance of the samples running out. I have a Costco membership but I will not go there on Saturdays because the crowds there just aren’t worth it to me.

    Also in regards to the used comment I firmly believe used sales help everyone. How much would you pay for a car if there were no trade ins or 2nd hand sales? How much for a movie if you weren’t allowed to get rid of it? Most cases I’ve seen electronic downloads of movies are considerbaly cheaper than DVD’s and I suspect that’s a main reason. If I buy a used CD from a friend who doesn’t like it anymore I get to try something new (and if I like it potentially but it new next time), she gets more money to invest in a new CD and the CD company gets to expose me to something at no additional cost and potentially get some of that money I gave my friend when she makes her new purchase and consequently charge slightly higher prices.

  65. Nik says:

    I don’t know about ethical, but I think it’s tacky. I think it would be somewhat less tacky of me to ask a coworker for some food at lunchtime. It would probably taste better, too. (Everyone knows that my cooking experiments result in disaster, so they are not likely to expect me to return the favor.) I don’t do that to people.

  66. Annah says:

    My sense is that you can not really equate the store example with the example of the friend. One is a social relationship while the the other is a business one. Different values and rules apply to each. A business is not a friendship and so you don’t have the same obligations.

  67. Patty says:

    Also consider…do you feel a difference in sampling at a big store vs sampling at a farmers market?
    I’ll often take a cookie from the sample station at the grocery store…but not if its the last one and there is a kid up next. I tend to shop at that store but I rarely buy their cookies. Its a customer perk, it makes me a happy shopper and a happy shopper is a prefered customer. Everyone has to find their balance.

  68. sally says:

    It seems like an utter waste of time and energy to specifically go to a store to eat your lunch. That being said, if the samples are “free” – then it is up to those dispensing the “free” samples to monitor – “how many” one person gets.

  69. pam munro says:

    Have to admit that I have had cheese snacks at Whole Foods (while buying vitamins) to tide me over – and there is a health food store I frequent specifically because I know they usually offer samples. These items are part of their marketing budget, so I feel perfectly justified in taking them. But don’t get piggy! I also have a senior citizen friend who makes himself out to be quite a beggar because he is always begging for free stuff! It makes him a bit of a nuisance – but then he is an old retired guy. I used to do a lot of demos, and the samples were given out by the company to the demo company to be given out by the demonstrator. They were not expected to be returned. But I did have trouble with one or two people trying to hog all the samples! So do try to be classy…

  70. AnnJo says:

    I’ve never gone to the store specifically to forage a free lunch and would have to be both very hungry and very broke to do that, but I’ve been shopping while hungry. In my experience, if you just ask whether it’s OK to take one or two extra samples, the answer is usually yes. If it’s no, then of course it would be unethical to try to obtain extra samples by deception.

    Like the post a couple of days ago about taking home unopened hotel disposable items, this is another situation where the “ethics” of the situation is easily resolved if we recognize that in each case there are two participants (customer & store, guest & hotel) who have entered into an agreement. One of the participants isn’t clear on a minor detail of the agreement (Do I get to take home unopened disposibles? Am I entitled to multiple samples, even if I’m not buying?)

    Respect for the other participant suggests that if you are unclear on what the details of your agreement are, you should not unilaterally decide in your own favor, but should ask what the other party’s expectation is. If they are OK with your plan, no problem and no ethical dilemma. If they are not, you should respect that and, if it’s important to you, take it into account when deciding if you want to be a repeat customer.

    The reason I think you should respect it if they say “No” is because it is just as much your fault as theirs that the agreement was unclear. You could ask, before you book a hotel, if you are entitled to take home disposibles, and decline to stay at hotels that say “No.”

  71. Mary W says:

    I didn’t read all the comments so forgive me if this has already been said. I don’t see visiting stores just to get samples as unethical so much as CHEAP. If a friend told me they did this, I’d think its kinda strange – not that it was a great idea.

    When I shop at Costco I try most of the samples, even ones for items I think I’ll never buy. (Sometimes I change my mind.) When I go to the farmer’s market, however, I’ll only try a sample of something that I might actually buy. It seems more unfair (unethical?) to take a sample from a struggling farmer.

  72. Chris Cruz says:

    I dont think taking samples that are offered for free is unethical. I love going to costco and trying samples. I go there with the intent to buy stuff but I like to try samples along the way. Alot of the times if the sample is really good I’ll go ahead and buy it. Being in marketing you’re not looking to make money back on that sample. Even if people come back 2-3 times it shows to the seller that they have a great product and people like it. The food company gives the free sample with the intent to give people a taste so they will buy if they like it.

    I think its unethical if someone takes multiple free bagged lunches at a charity event just so they can get full. In that case something is given away free as a favor for guests not with the intent to eventually make a sale.

  73. Ruby Leigh says:

    For extra bucks I work as a Promo Model for various Liquor brands. We value our work in terms of exposure, and only somewhat in terms of sales. In a typical evening it is expected that we will sample at least 5 times more than we will sell. A lot times we are trying out a new product that may have just arrived on the shelves, or we are encouraging an account to carry a certain line. When we have these new products, we want everyone to sample so they can see if they like it or not, and then generate feedback for the brand. Often times, people do not buy that time, but they might be more inclined to in the future. It takes 7 times of exposure before someone remembers a brand, so we don’t expect to sell on the first sip.

    Anyway, all that to say – Take a sample, it’s what it’s there for. I think the abuse comes in when think of it as a meal substitute.

  74. Katy says:

    Personally, I find this a rediculous conversation to even be having. If you do the most minor of research, you find that almost all of these “sample tables” are paid for and staffed by the food company themselves. They pay the store a fee to be there, so the store could care less how many samples you take. In fact more is better – it shows the company that they are a good location.

    Also, taking three or four samples simply proves you like the food, and that you are more likely to buy it (from ANY vendor) at a later date. If there’s a shortage of samples, then its up to the food company to make sure they have employees who can draw the line.

    One of the top rules in sales is that when you let the customer touch, taste, try, handle, etc the product, they buy more. Judging people for being comfortable trying samples that they were offered is rediculous, and if there are enough samples that someone with a small appetite is full and doesn’t need another meal, there’s nothing wrong with that.

  75. Brittany says:

    A little behind on commenting on this, but I just rediscovered the rest of this series (loved the first two pieces). One of my favorite weekend activities is to head to Central Market (a higher-class grocery store than I normally shop at) on weekends and sample EVERYTHING. I find it fun, and I’ve taken friends there when they’re in town. I don’t find this bizarre or an instance of more-time-than-sense— I genuinely enjoy it, and it’s cheap weekend entertainment. I don’t go with the intent of a meal substitute, but sometimes it turns out that way.

    I only sample things once (for the most part), and have yet to buy anything I’ve sampled, but I usually buy one small thing for myself as a treat, so I don’t find going too unethical. Honestly, I’ve fallen in love with the store and would be a regular customer if I wasn’t living on a below-minimum-wage stipend.

    The only part I find unethical about the scenario is going back for seconds and thirds. I think the occasional second sample of something you’re considering buying is okay, but otherwise, taking multiples is a definite no-no.

  76. Danielle says:

    We go to Costco and get samples. I have done this in the past when I had no intention of making a purchase. However, I am now a Costco member and have bought a few thousand dollars worth of merchandise… so it obviously hasn’t hurt them.

    It’s interesting to note that I don’t usually buy what I’m sampling… I buy other things. However, Costco is probably fine with having a loss leader help bring people into the store and allowing me to purchase other items while having me guarantee that I’m going to stand there and allow myself to be advertised to.

    However, I don’t go back for more than one. I will frequently give my sample to my husband, but no more than one sample each. Except for the time they had 7 different varieties of fudge… it tasted delicious to my pregnant taste buds, and I asked if it was okay. As it was, the company who was giving out the fudge had their own workers doing it, and they weren’t shy about offering people multiple samples.

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