Leadership & Influence

The Real Reason Why Costco Gives Out Free Samples

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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.

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.

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 to our detriment.

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?

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.

You can read about the other important influencing principles here.

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.


Reciprocity, Leadership Tips, 3D Chess, Career Advice

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