Creative Alternatives to In-Store Sampling

April 13, 2022
Cynthia Nakad

If you were asked what makes your product so special, we bet that you would say it all comes down to its unique taste, smell, look, or feel. It’s precisely because of this that product sampling has remained a tried and true marketing tactic in brands’ marketing mix for decades - it allows consumers to experience these unique qualities first-hand.

Brands relying on traditional forms of product sampling like in-store activations however, know very well the pain points and costs associated with them. This includes high sample waste and duplication or “double-dipping” with 95% of samples handed out randomly and the average consumer receiving 2.5 samples at an event or in-store activation. 

Logistical challenges like staffing, complex installations, and monitoring the user experience also limit the scalability of in-store sampling. Not to mention, that they lose touch with consumers the minute they walk away with a sample. 

But rapid digital adoption, massive shifts in consumer behaviour, and the sudden pause of in-store activations due to the pandemic, have all given rise to new and innovative ways of getting products into the hands of consumers. Many of which are eclipsing conventional methods because of the wealth of benefits they offer like advanced targeting, the collection of first-party data, as well as valuable consumer insights and feedback.

In this post, we’re taking a look at a few creative and incredibly effective alternatives to in-store sampling. 


AR Try-on Technology

Augmented Reality (AR) has significantly changed the way consumers shop over the last decade and now, it’s also changing the way consumers discover products and put them to the test before committing to a purchase. This immersive technology takes the real world and superimposes computer-generated images over it. In the case of beauty products for example, where product trial plays a crucial role in the shopping journey, AR try-on technology has posed as an innovative alternative to in-store sampling giving potential consumers the opportunity to try dozens of products on themselves from their mobile or computer. Using an advanced face tracker algorithm that detects facial features, the technology gives consumers a hyper-realistic idea of what a product like a lipstick or eyeshadow would look like on them. 

As Adweek’s senior CPG reporter Paul Hiebert has stated, AR Try-on technology is no longer an alternative in the beauty industry, particularly in a post-COVID era where cosmetic brands are leveraging makeup sampling methods that keep their distance: “So far, things are off to a promising start. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Ulta Beauty’s virtual try-on tool GLAMlab has seen five times more usage compared to the average monthly rate prior to the pandemic” 

As novel and engaging as this method might be however, it can’t quite compete with the tactical experience of trying a product in real life offers which brings us to the next creative alternative to in-store sampling:

Digital product sampling

This highly effective alternative gives traditional in-store product sampling a complete digital makeover. It combines the advantages of digital marketing like advanced audience targeting, email opt-ins, consumer feedback, and retargeting capabilities, with the tangible interaction of a physical sampling experience. The added benefit here is that the product discovery happens in a place where you can catch a consumer’s undivided attention - the comfort of their own home. In a digital product sampling program, brands have an opportunity to target and reach the consumers they believe are most likely to love (and buy) their product. It’s also a great chance to put these hypotheses to the test, and see whether your initial target consumers are actually the one responding the most to your sample.

Consumers sign up to receive free samples and after answering a set of diagnostic questions (made by the brand) they are then matched with the products that best fit their unique needs and lifestyle. With Sampler, consumers actually hand-select which of those samples they’d like to receive (which means brands rest assured that their marketing spend is directed towards consumers genuinely interested in trying their product).

Perhaps the most rewarding part of a digital sampling program for brands is typically what follows the product trial experience. This is because brands can now reap the benefits like collecting valuable first-party data, compiling consumer insights, rapidly growing their email list, gathering pivotal consumer feedback like ratings and reviews and continuing the conversation with consumers all the way to purchase.

For example, if you’re a brand looking to target consumers within a certain age group and region, with a particular dietary preference, and who frequently shop at Kroger, you can not only tailor your program to reach and engage this exact consumer, but can upload the email opt-ins collected during the campaign to your database and tailor future marketing messaging accordingly. You can also use key themes within the reviews they left you (like key attributes they raved about), to further attune your marketing verbiage.  

An added bonus to a digital sampling program is the wealth of User Generated Content that is collected with it. For example, every Sampler box is designed with fun instructions on how to take and share the perfect product shot consumers often use to post about their unboxing and trial experience on their social media networks. One scan of the #SamplerLove hashtag on Instagram, can give you an idea of how much receiving a personalized box of free samples inspires consumers to document and share their experience online. To many brands, particularly in the CPG space, this authentic (and highly influential) form of content made by their biggest fans inspires brand trust, loyalty, and is a proven driver of sales.

At a time where in-store product sampling strategies are becoming increasingly costly and inefficient, Digital product sampling offers CPG brands a chance to redirect their marketing dollars away from un-targeted and unscalable tactics, to a data-driven and measurable approach.

Insertion Sampling

Amongst the many alternatives brands turned to during the sudden halt of in-store sampling due to the pandemic, has been the strategy of adding free samples to online or curb-side pickup orders and even swag bags handed out at events. Major retailers like Target, Kroger, and Walmart adopted the strategy as a way to delight consumers and propel sales, while brands like Cure Hydration, saw it as a necessary alternative to their usual strategy of handing out samples at fitness studios.

As online grocery sales skyrocketed and consumers adopted it as a more convenient way to shop, marketers grew more interested in insertion sampling as a way to get their product in front of potential consumers. In turn, retailers have seen this as an opportunity to monetize the data they gather about consumer preferences.

Unlike digital product sampling where consumers actually hand-select the samples they want to receive at home, insertion sampling takes more of a “surprise and delight approach” where samples are mixed in with existing grocery orders. This less targeted approach can in some cases lead to higher sample waste and lower consumer engagement as it risks shoppers receiving samples they may not quite be interested in trying.


In-store product sampling has been CPG brands’ “bread and butter” marketing tactic for decades. Rapidly changing consumer behaviour and rapid digital advancements however paved the way for new innovative and incredibly effective alternatives that today, are reshaping the way we think about product discovery. The demand for consumers to test products before a purchase is stronger than ever before, so building a highly immersive, data-driven, and scalable sampling experience can have a significant impact on a brand’s reach, awareness and ultimately revenue.


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