Brand Strategy

Why the benefits of samples could outweigh the costs for DTCs

Whether handed out or sent in the mail, brands are seeing the value of letting customers try before they buy.
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Iryna Veklich/Getty Images

· 5 min read

There was a time not too long ago when in-store shopping—let alone sampling—was unthinkable. Even online brands seem to be thinking in IRL terms now.

In March, the National Retail Federation reported that physical stores “did better” than online retailers for the first time since the pandemic began. It found many retailers opening stores were digital natives, like Allbirds and Warby Parker.

In addition to opening permanent locations, DTC pop-ups and partnerships with larger retailers are also emerging. Take Glossier, which will soon be in Sephora after years of being sold strictly on its own site. By 2024, market-research company Forrester predicts that 72% of US retail sales will occur in brick-and-mortar stores. The main reason? Customers want to test products IRL.

That’s why, experts told us, DTC brands seem to be embracing the power of the product sample.

What’s in store?

Pop Up Grocer is a temporary store that opens for 30 days, three times a year, to sell DTC food brands like Brightland, Fly by Jing, and Fishwife. To date, the store has appeared in cities like Chicago, Miami, and Denver. Now, CEO and founder Emily Schildt told us she’s gearing up to open the first permanent store in New York, which will host events, classes, and tastings.

One of the challenges Schildt said Pop Up Grocer sought to address when it started in 2019 is the fact that many DTC brands “didn’t have a physical base where they could be touched and have an emotional, engaging connection with their target consumer.”

In addition to stocking the products, Schildt said it provides samples of brands featured, which often translates to more sales. “People still want that in-person validation or confirmation from a human being that what they’re buying—particularly if it’s higher quality or higher-end and thus more costly—is worthwhile,” she said.

While many of the brands in store are sold online, Schildt said the No. 1 comment she hears from customers is “it’s everything I’ve seen on Instagram or everything I’ve seen on TikTok, only now I can buy it.”

On the street

For grocery-delivery app Gorillas, in-person sampling around New York City has been a key marketing strategy. Brand lead Phoebe Lev told us the company ran a campaign this year called “Whatever New York Wants” where they used purchase data to provide tailored samples in different neighborhoods. Because Williamsburg ordered more avocados than other neighborhoods, they handed out avocado oil.

“What’s been so great about these street marketing efforts and the sampling is you can get face time with the consumers to really walk them through what Gorillas is, how we operate, and then have them associate the product that they receive as being available on Gorillas,” she said.

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By asking people to download the app and sign up in order to get a free product, Lev said sampling has been a major acquisition channel for the app.

DTC brand Naked Nutrition recently ran a three-day pop-up campaign in NYC to distribute samples of its protein cookies. “Getting people to try it is really important because once people try it, the feedback has been great,” Marketing Manager Ryan O’Connor told us. It also enabled them to utilize influencer relationships for posts on Instagram and TikTok.

While the activation was more expensive than a standard digital campaign, O’Connor said his team “looked at it as more of an overall brand-awareness campaign than something that was going to drive an immediate return on investment.”

Adam Salacuse, founder of experiential marketing activation company Alt Terrain, which worked with Naked Nutrition on its pop-up, told us he’s seen more DTC companies do similar events. He attributed it in part to the move away the third-party cookies, the crowded digital ad space, and an increasing brand focus on fostering community.

When you can’t meet ’em, mail ’em

Laura Burget, co-founder of DTC company Three Ships Beauty, told us her company opted for a more hands-off approach to sampling: home delivery.

The company initially worked with larger subscription-box companies, but Burget said it was often “time- and capital-intensive” and didn’t tend to provide customer data. Now, she said, customers can click an ad that directs to their website, where they can order a two-week supply of products for free.

Toby Evans, director of publisher and platforms at SoPost, an online product sampling company, told us that while online sampling felt like a “new, brave thing to do” for DTC brands a few years ago, it’s now a growing market with high demand.

“You can’t smell the internet, right? You can’t taste the internet,” he said, adding that the combination of online targeting and physical product trial provides the best of both worlds. He said the company runs many ad-based campaigns and has sent samples for DTC companies like Grenade Protein Bars and Fight Vitamins.

While Burget said Three Ships loses money on its sample orders, the long-term value surpasses that of those from Meta ads, with results showing that customers who sign up for samples spend more money over time.

“We’re just kind of playing a long game,” she said.

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