10 Things You Never Realized About Costco’s Free Food Samples
Costco warehouses draw crowds of loyal members stocking up on everything from bulk groceries to electronics. The retail giant encourages snacking in store with their famous $1.50 hot dog and soda deal or for the thriftiest… an abundance of free samples. Below are some surprising facts about Costco’s free samples.
10. There are ideal times to go
For true sample aficionados, there are ideal times to head to Costco if you’re looking to maximize your sample potential. According to a Reddit AMA with a Costco employee, Mondays and Tuesdays are the prime times to score the most free food because they tend to be less busy… you’re likely to encounter a smaller selection, but you’ll have less competition for those tasty little bites as you browse, along with the potential to come back for seconds and thirds without the fear of hogging the sample table from other shoppers. Sunday is the busiest day for free sample seekers, as the office crowd picks up their weekly groceries, but samples are most plentiful and varied on the weekends in general. It’s all about perspective! If you’re aiming for a weekend run, employees advise going either before 11 a.m., before the weekend rush hits, or between 1 and 2 p.m. (if you don’t mind a crowd) since all shifts are out around that time. If you’re sticking with a weekday to avoid the crowds, make multiple rounds, and score the most food, aim for between 3 and 5 p.m. You’ll beat the lunch rush and make it in before the post-workday rush. In the words of a Costco employee, “if you don’t feel like you have eaten a full meal through sampling, you’re not doing it right.”
9. You don’t always need a membership to sample
You might be able to score free food at Costco without a membership. There are plenty of reasons to visit the grocery chain without one, like shopping via gift card, using the pharmacy, chowing down at the food court, or even purchasing alcohol. Costco allows non-members to shop via gift card, so get a friend with a membership to hook you up and you can browse (and sample!) to your heart’s content. Similarly, it’s illegal for vendors to require a membership for pharmaceutical and alcohol purchases in some states, so you can take advantage of Costco’s deals on ‘scripts, spirits, and samples as you shop without committing to a year-long membership. Costco’s pharmacy has competitive prices on prescriptions as well as cheap flu shots that also don’t require a membership. If you’re tempted by an inexpensive bottle of spirits on your sample run, you won’t be disappointed… Costco’s Kirkland brand vodka is said to be comparable to its much pricier counterpart, Grey Goose. Finally, if a sample run whets your appetite, you can purchase an inexpensive meal at the Costco food court without a membership. Though prices are good, options are generally limited to classic Costco fare like hot dogs, pizza, rotisserie chicken, and soda. Getting your gourmet fix at the sample stations and then tucking into inexpensive comfort food at the food court? Sounds like an excellent inexpensive foodie afternoon.
8. They’re unlimited
Multiple employees on Reddit have confirmed that the samples are indeed, unlimited (within reason… see below). One replied that “You can have more than one sample. Really. You don’t need to ask. As long as you don’t shove an entire tray of cookies down our shirt, feel free.” It may sound facetious, but people really have taken the whole tray. Many ambitious customers have combined their free samples into an entire free meal. This is particularly popular with young people and students strapped for cash. If you think you’re taking full advantage of the unlimited samples, a regular at one Redditor’s warehouse has you beat… she stops by every day and fills her purse. However, if you’re worried about toeing the line between social faux pas and actual theft as you make a third, fourth, and fifth stop at a particularly tasty sample table, you’re not alone. Courts been involved in altercations between sample-seeking customers and grocery stores. A Minnesotan man named Erwin Lingitz was reportedly jumped by store and police security after repeatedly circling a sample table at Cub Foods and coming out with a pound and a half of summer sausage and beef sticks. Such encounters are uncommon at Costco, though. Employees report that their job is to avoid saying no to customers, and though they can give you a disapproving glance, they technically can’t stop you from cleaning out their sample station. You’re definitely in the clear as long as you’re not clearing out the tray or taking multiples when there’s a crowd. One employee wrote that, “Our job is to give them out, so don’t feel bad for taking them.”
7. You can make a meal out of them
Student Madeline Seymour, who wrote in the University of Virginia’s Cavalier Daily that Costco is a “students best friend,” recommends taking advantage your nearby Costco’s free samples to put together a three course meal. She’s not alone: many customers have reported that making a few strategic rounds of the warehouse can get you a very filling and varied meal. The New York Post, in their report on Costco’s best free eats, scored a gourmet lunch of twenty free samples, including mashed potatoes, hummus, Oscar Mayer bacon, salami, whitefish, Stacy’s Simply Bruschetta, an assortment of cheeses including Cambozola, 3-year-old aged cheddar and Couronne Brie, and Lindor chocolate truffles, cheesecake, and red-velvet mini-cakes for dessert. An employee they encountered on their trip mentioned that some customers come for breakfast, lunch, and dinner… and bring their kids. Of course, this practice is generally more welcomed if you’re making a shopping trip at the same time. There are plenty of advantages to the sample meal aside from saving money… you get a chance to try out foods you otherwise might not, branch out beyond your usual grocery list, and discover potential new favorites. Costco counts on you or your fellow shoppers making enough purchases to balance out lavish sample runs, so eat to your heart’s content.
6. They’re stringently clean
Almost everyone has a horror story about finding something untoward in their food… it’s jarring, takes away from the experience, and can leave a bad taste in your mouth when it comes to the restaurant or company. Luckily, this is very unlikely to happen on a Costco sample run. If you’ve ever had your doubts, rest assured that Costco is big on both food quality and safety, especially when it comes to their samples. When a worried customer on Reddit shared their concerns about employee cleanliness and equipment used for samples, an employee replied, “Sorry to disappoint, but we have annoyingly strict hygiene policies.” All equipment is thoroughly sanitized, and employees are expected to change their gloves as often as every five minutes. Every time a customer touches something they aren’t meant to, it’s thrown away or replaced. Employees manning the sample stations are also expected to meet high standards of personal cleanliness. The same employee who dished on food safety above wrote that while they personally are very clean, some of their coworkers had been sent home for smelling bad. Pretty embarrassing, but all the better for our peace of mind as customers!
5. They’re not for kids
Although grocery shopping can be a dull adult responsibility, samples make it all worth it! And at Costco, samples are effectively restricted to adults. According to Costco’s rules, samples aren’t supposed to be given out to kids under 13 without their parents present. A CDS employee on Reddit said they aren’t allowed to hand samples out to just any pint-sized shopper in case the child in question has food allergies they weren’t aware of. They aren’t checking IDs for paper cups of trail mix, though, they just need to see the accompanying parents. Another CDS employee wrote that the kids sample policy changes a lot and largely depends on the manager’s preference. At their store, kids taller than the sample table can take a sample. If they can’t reach, don’t seem to know what they’re taking, or obviously look like a young child, the employee has to ask the parents for permission to give out a sample.
4. They’re a well-tested business strategy
Costco samples are a win-win… the company doesn’t mind giving out free food because of the enormous payoffs that come with offering it, including sales boosts of as much as 2,000 percent according to Supermarket News. In simple terms, samples make for a more fun and engaging shopping experience that makes customers look forward to what could otherwise be dull shopping trips, and the guarantee of free samples on every visit keeps them coming back. Costco and other grocery chains’ use of sampling is well founded in research. Interactions, the product demonstration company that handles Costco’s free samples, tracks the effect of their product sampling increases, and reported pretty impressive figures… frozen pizza sales supposedly increased one store’s sales by 600 percent. Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University, noted the importance of psychological reciprocity in Costco’s decision to invest in free samples for its customers. “If someone does something for you,” he wrote. “You really feel a rather surprisingly strong obligation to do something back for them.” To ensure that they capture all of this potential gain, Costco is careful not to leave their demo tables unattended. Customers emptying out the tray under the watchful eye of a sample-minder may feel more social ‘pressure’ to make a purchase. There’s also the possibility that a free sample will remind you of a familiar taste and unearth a dormant craving. If a chocolate sample has ever influenced you to spring for the whole bar, you’ve experienced the well-tested psychological effects of sampling in-store!
3. Sample employees aren’t employed by Costco
If you’ve ever asked the person behind the sample counter to point you in the direction of a particular product and gotten a blank stare, there’s an explanation… the people handing out samples aren’t employed by the same company as the ones ringing up your groceries. Costco sampling is outsourced to a variety of companies, including Club Demonstration Services in the US. If a particular employee is not employed by a larger sample demonstration company, they’re likely a representative directly from the manufacturer. Even regular Costco employees might not be able to give you directions, though… Costco rearranges their products almost daily in order to provide customers with an engaging “treasure hunt” experience and keep them guessing, so you’re not going crazy if you’ve never been able to find the bread in the same place twice. As you wander around the store in search of those coveted deals, Costco hopes that you’ll inevitably encounter more products (and make more purchases!) than if you made a beeline for every item on your shopping list. A Costco warehouse employee confirmed that because of the frequent shuffling, they tend to know where basic things like milk, deli, and chips are, but for more specific items they’re likely as in the dark as you.
2. Some employees have favorites and regular customers
If you look forward to sharing a smile and a few words with your Costco sample guy on your shopping trip, they might recognize you too… a Costco sample employee on Reddit wrote that he recognizes some of his favorite regulars! Another Costco regular on Instagram (@classroomofcompassion) shared a photo of their father with a Costco sample employee he befriended. The two are on a first name basis due to the family’s tradition of frequenting nearby Costcos to score free samples. It makes sense that many Costco sample employees remember customers and have favorites, because people go to pretty extreme and memorable lengths for their samples! A man on featured on Costco Connections apparently has taken multiple women on first dates to Costco… you’d probably recognize him too as an employee. Even if you aren’t that memorable or close with your sample staff, your local Costco employee likely isn’t judging you for taking more than your share occasionally. Working around all that tempting food means they understand the struggle. Another sample employee on Reddit wrote that “of course” they eat the samples, but only on break. At some Costcos, employees can even be fired for eating a sample on the clock! It goes a long way to remember your manners, too, when grabbing your samples. An employee wrote on Reddit that they “stand in one place for six hours, saying the same thing over and over, [and] giving out samples to the same (largely ungrateful people) there’s nothing nicer you can do than say ‘thank you.’ You’d be surprised how many people just waddle over to us, shove things in their mouth, and stumble away. We thrive on the rare times people treat us like human beings and not human vending machines.”
1. The least you can do is listen
Numerous Costco employees online have written that they don’t mind customers stopping by a few times for extra samples as long as they allow them to do their jobs. “We are obligated to try to sell our samples to you, not just give them out for free,” one employee wrote. “If you’re going to take a sample, and especially if you take two, just humor us and listen to our little speech.” If you’ve ever worked in retail or sales, you know how cheesy it feels sometimes to pitch to people, but sample hawkers are really just doing their jobs. A day in the life of a Costco sample worker involves long hours of standing, and they’re often not permitted to leave a twelve-foot radius of their stations for food safety reasons. They see countless faces throughout the course of their shifts, many of whom are there to grab their food and leave. Taking a few minutes out of your shopping trip to smile, converse, and genuinely connect with employees who often get treated like robots can brighten their day, even if you’re not swayed by their sales pitch in the end. Though employees are obligated to pitch to you, they’re not paid on commission. One employee wrote that, “We could literally sell every unit Costco has of a product and we wouldn’t see a dime more. We get a pretty good hourly wage though [although] we do not get any monetary commission for doing well.”