Will other retailers follow Costco and bring back food sampling?

Photo: Getty Images/DavorLovincic
Jun 01, 2021

Costco announced that it is beginning a phased return to full sampling in early June after a 14-month hiatus, albeit initially with some safety protocols:

  • All samples will be prepared behind plexiglass; 
  • Samples will be offered in smaller batches for better crowd control; 
  • Distribution will be made to shoppers one at a time.

Costco ended food sampling, seen as critical to driving trial and as an in-store perk, at its warehouses last March at the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

On last Thursday’s earning call, Costco CFO Richard Galanti said that, as various states opened last summer and fall, the chain brought back a few sampling events: single-serve items like cookies and crackers, take-out only, no-cook-to-prepare items and a few display-only talking demos.

Sampling’s return at Costco “will come in waves,” reaching 170 of the chain’s 550 U.S. stores in the first week of June with a goal of including all towards the end of the month.

“The first wave will actually determine how fast we roll out and what and when restrictions are lifted,” said Mr. Galanti.

Mask mandates severely restricted sampling. Costco in mid-May became one of the first retailers to allow customers who are fully vaccinated to shop maskless, unless one is required by state or local laws.

Costco also announced it will be bringing back seating at indoor food courts at half capacity in June with the return of in-store sampling expected to closely follow the return of food courts and self-serve stations. It expects to make both packaged and non-packaged options available as shoppers regain comfort with sampling stations.

“I think food samples will return, but I don’t see them returning in 2021,” Stew Leonard Jr. of Stew Leonard’s, the Northeast grocer, told TODAY last December. “It’s going to take a while for customers to get used to it and we are going to keep a close eye on the cruise industry and the casinos to see how they handle it. Right now, our grab and go meals are preferred by our customers because they are pre-packaged by our chefs and safe.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What measures may be necessary to bring food sampling back safely and ease shopper concerns? Will sampling stations likely work differently after the pandemic is resolved?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Methodically monitoring the results before expanding the sampling program is smart."
"It will be a balancing act to get sampling right post-COVID-19."
"Customers liked food sampling before the COVID-19 pandemic and they will return to it as they feel more and more like the pandemic is behind us."

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20 Comments on "Will other retailers follow Costco and bring back food sampling?"

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Neil Saunders

Yes, food sampling will come back – it already has at Whole Foods as well as Costco. I also noticed this weekend that the hot food and salad bars are open again for self-service at Whole Foods. Lots of things will come back as we move beyond the pandemic – and thank goodness for it!

Ken Morris

Sampling is a powerful part of the brand experience for many grocers. It should be caveat emptor, with in-store samplers deciding whether or not to risk the sampling experience. Those working the sampling stations should remain masked, for now, even if already fully vaccinated. Beyond being the safest approach, it also reinforces the brand’s message that it cares for shoppers’ well-being.

Bob Amster

Definitely. Customers liked food sampling before the COVID-19 pandemic and they will return to it as they feel more and more like the pandemic is behind us. Sampling is a fun experience for many. Talk about experiential retail — this is it.

Richard Hernandez

It will come back – I saw this at Costco last weekend. The demonstrator was masked and samples were put out in smaller batches. I also saw the food bars at Whole Foods open as well with ropes and rules in place where you don’t have people on top of each other like in the past. I believe food sampling will continue to grow as long as protocol is in place and you have a good understanding between employee and customer.

Harley Feldman

Food sampling will return to Costco and other stores fairly quickly. As other venues like restaurants are returning to pre-pandemic norms and levels, consumers are returning to their old habits relatively quickly. Costco is being cautious, but old habits will also cause them to be less cautious in a relatively short time.

Christine Russo

It’s very interesting to see the dialogue around samples as a major driver of sales and foot traffic. Does anyone sample as well and effectively as Costco? As a measure of the path back to in-store shopping – Costco is certainly leading the charge. Others will watch and will follow.

Lisa Goller

Avoiding outbreaks tied to store sampling will boost consumer confidence. Costco’s phased approach is wise as it balances shopper safety with sampling to spur sales.

Methodically monitoring the results before expanding the sampling program is smart. Also, using plexiglass, small batches and controlled distribution limits crowds and promote hygiene.

Post-pandemic, sampling stations will likely relax most of these measures to encourage product trial and sales. Engaging all five senses (and immediate product access) gives stores an edge over e-commerce.

Matthew Pavich

With all of the omnichannel experiences now available to consumers, sampling remains an important way to entice customers into stores and is a useful promotional lever and way to showcase a brand or product. Sampling will come back but, as the article states, it will need to come back in a way that makes shoppers feel safe. As with other promotional activities, retailers will need to monitor the impact of these events and adapt as conditions change. You can’t taste things on the internet and you can’t replace the joy of seeing a free sample while making a shopping trip — so this practice should come back in full force once retailers and consumers are fully ready.

Jennifer Bartashus

All eyes will be on Costco for how they manage the process of bringing back samples, since this is an effective way to connect with shoppers and drive sales. My Costco is always packed, so success may hinge on the ability to offer reasonable safety precautions while not causing long lines that can impede movement through the store. It will be a balancing act to get sampling right post-COVID-19.

Rich Kizer

Retail is all about consumer experiences. Out of stock? Strike one. Long lines with few attendants? Strike two. Mediocre experience? That can be strike three — and maybe out. Retailing is part entertainment, and sampling can be a powerful tool. Beyond that, most of us want to get back to those “feel good times” that we enjoyed pre-pandemic. Anything that we can do to soothe the nerves and please the brain today — let’s get it on in-store. “Would you like to try a sample?” And watch the smiles.

Ryan Mathews

It would appear Costco is doing all the obvious things — demoing folks behind plexiglass, limiting batch sizes, etc. — correctly. Of course anyone who has ever seen a Costco sampling station knows that customers often reach over each other for samples, take multiple samples “for the kids,” and other practices that will challenge “limited” batching. As to the second question, of course they will look different — for a while at least, until we all forget about why public health measures are important. One thought. Last week I traveled for the first time since the initial lockdown. I was in the Carolinas where a.) nobody was masked, and b.) nobody social distanced. The staff in the hotel? All masked and safely plexiglassed away from the public. Ditto for restaurant and bar workers. So, what message is being sent when the demo staff feel the need to mask and be behind plexiglass and the public is allowed to run around sneezing, coughing, and breathing on each other? Just asking …

David Naumann

As state and local governments loosen social distancing and mask mandates, sampling will resume at most retailers that previously offered samples. Initially there will be some extra safety measures like plexiglass between the servers and the customers; however it may return to pre-pandemic sampling methods once the pandemic is under control. That assumes that COVID-19, and all the new variants, are no longer a safety concern. Fingers crossed!

Brian Cluster

Food sampling is already back on a more limited basis. Several months ago when I saw the first sampling event in a local Ralphs store, I was excited and relieved to see another sign of a return to pre-COVID-19 retail.

Brands can take advantage of being a first-mover in sampling in a particular category. I think that it is a great way to re-introduce your brand to consumers and tout some of the new innovations/flavors that have been introduced in the past year. A coconut water brand was featured in my local store and it definitely made an impression.

Sampling remains a key way to enhance the customer experience in-store. But I would challenge that retailers and brands take some of their digital learnings from the last year and engage with the consumer online or ask for feedback via QR code survey to keep the conversation going.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

Sampling will return big time with the appropriate health and safety issues incorporated into the process. I agree that much will be learned from cruise lines and restaurant buffets. Besides the impact on sales of sampled products, the retailer gets a noted boost. Sampling in Costco reinforced its “treasure hunt” image. You never know what’s going to be sampled from trip to trip. The treasure hunt returns!

Mohamed Amer, PhD

Yes, without a doubt! Getting back to normal requires taking a few baby steps but, all of a sudden, we’ll bypass any interim measures and we’ll be running full speed ahead. Change is not linear; it starts slowly, then happens all at once.

John Karolefski

Grocers and food makers both want in-store sampling to come back. And shoppers would like that, too. But the phase-in will be gradual with safety guidelines as the key.
This promotion will be back to normal in all stores a year from now in mid-2022.

Mel Kleiman

Other retailers will be following Costco as sampling drives sales. As people become more comfortable with the new normal and the number of cases of Covid keeps dropping, customers are going to feel more comfortable with sampling.

Craig Sundstrom

And the difference between “about the same” and “somewhat differently” is …?
Whatever semantics we use, I think the changes will come mostly in that there will be less self-service; which to the extent that implies a diversion of personnel hours, we’ll probably see somewhat less of it.

James Tenser

Costco (and Trader Joe’s and many other grocers’) shoppers love sampling. So do brands, as it’s a proven way to drive take-away and initiate new product preferences. I expect it will come back strong by the end of this year, albeit with a few more sanitary guidelines and social rules. (Grabby customers should be discouraged.)

On a related note, I wonder about the future for self-service salad and food bars. Most of these were shut down during the pandemic and I see none resumed around here. My prediction: Many will be replaced by service counters and store-packaged prepared items.

Trevor Sumner

Of course it will. It’s an effective marketing technique that adds value to the shopping experience. Brands win. Retailers win. Shoppers win. With COVID-19 cases declining rapidly, including in recently hard hit states like Michigan, we will see a rapid shift back to tried and true marketing methods like sampling in Q3. It’s inevitable. The world is ready to move on.

"Methodically monitoring the results before expanding the sampling program is smart."
"It will be a balancing act to get sampling right post-COVID-19."
"Customers liked food sampling before the COVID-19 pandemic and they will return to it as they feel more and more like the pandemic is behind us."

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