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The Psychology And Behavioral Economics Of Costco’s Free Samples

    Monkey eating a yellow banana to show that Costco free samples actually make a monkey of you.

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    It’s the million-dollar question that everyone who shops at Costco, Sam’s Club or other bulk discount retailers has. Why do I buy so much stuff from them? And then end up throwing out almost half?

    It’s the free samples that Costco gives out that do this. But not in the way most of us would expect.

    Bruschetta bread free samples at Costco.

    Those of us not in sales may not know the actual reason Costco gives us those free samples to taste. We think they want us to try the product, like it and then get us to buy some of those items.

    That’s just a small part though.

    Costco Free Samples And The Reciprocity Influence Principle

    The bigger reason lies with the influence principle of reciprocity [1]. By giving us something – even a 2 inch pizza bagel on a napkin – our subconscious instinct to give back is so strong, that we end up buying other things in the store. Stuff we were not planning on getting and don’t really need. All to fulfill a psychologically ingrained obligation in humans, to repay a favor.

    Shopping cart full of groceries going down a supermarket aisle.

    The Behavioral Economics Of Costco’s Free Samples

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    Other than the reciprocity benefit of Costco’s approach, an additional reason it works so well is that almost none of us are aware that we are being influenced in this way. We think the sale is just about the product we have tested. We let our guard down later when we are shopping elsewhere in Costco.

    Studies have shown that retailers can get as much as a 2,000 percent boost in sales with in-store product demonstrations, or as we know them – “free” samples.

    How Could We Benefit From This And Use Costco’s Free Sample Approach?

    Behavioral economics teaches us that we can use reciprocity ethically at work and in life. Here, what you give may not be physical but emotional. Encourage people, give genuine praise, help them through fears, and fight their enemies with them.

    Now imagine how your influence will grow with your colleagues and friends.

    The key is to give something that is genuine and personalized. It should preferably be something the person is looking for. And is in need of at that time.

    You can read about the other important influencing principles here.

    Besides free samples, Costco uses many other aggressive influencing principles on us. I stopped shopping there many years ago.


    1. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion By Robert B. Cialdini, Revised Ed., Collins Business Essentials, New York, NY 2007

    Shaun Mendonsa, PhD is an influencing expert and pharmaceutical development leader. He writes on the topics of influence and persuasion, and develops next generation drugs in human pharma by advising international pharmaceutical CROs and CMOs. He can be reached at


    Costco free samples, Behavioral economics, Psychology, Reciprocity, Influence, Career advice

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