Ethical Frugality Week: Free Samples

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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