Elevate the In-Store Experience

Sampling new foodservice and limited-time offers delivers excitement to your stores.

Elevate the In-Store Experience

April 2022   minute read

By: Chrissy Blasinsky

When you hear the words “food” and “sampling,” one company likely comes to mind: Costco. “There’s no brand that’s as strongly associated with free samples as Costco. ...Costco knows that sampling, if done right, can convince people that its stores are fun places to be,” according to The Atlantic.

Many of us can relate. When Costco hit the market in the 1980s, sampling was so new and exciting in food retail that it was like getting a free lunch just by walking the warehouse aisles.

Can convenience stores replicate the fun factor with sampling programs? Absolutely. A Costco store is about 50 times larger than the average c-store, but the goals for sampling are similar: Create excitement about your brand, your stores and products and boost customer loyalty.

If you’re new to sampling, it can vary from an active crew-served program to a passive program with an unmanned tray. One is going to be more effective than the other—more on that later.


With 45 years of experience leading successful foodservice programs at 7-Eleven, MAPCO, Stop & Go Markets and Rutter’s, convenience retail foodservice expert and consultant Jerry Weiner believes that sampling is a tried-and-true method for creating excitement and driving sales.

His first suggestion? Sampling should be treated as a marketing/advertising program. It’s a method of “getting your message out” that is immediate and grabs customers as they walk into your store. Next, it’s free food or drink for the customer, which is not a tough sell. “You’re not asking them to make a purchase” with a sample, he said.

Kwik Trip uses sampling to get customers to try its latest foodservice offers.

One pitfall to avoid is using sampling to get rid of product that’s heading for the garbage bin. “Sampling is not a way to get rid of waste,” such as the unsellables or LTOs coming off the menu, said Weiner.

Paul Servais, retail food service director at La Crosse, Wisconsin-based Kwik Trip, agrees. “We don’t sample food close to expiration to hide waste. We want our guests to have our food when it’s at its best—fresh, right out of the oven,” he said, adding that to ensure quality and freshness, unused samples are discarded within 5-10 minutes of being made.

While at York, Pennsylvania-based Rutter’s, Weiner and his team were not shy about introducing unique menu items. For example, the Route 30 sandwich launched in 2015: two grilled cheese sandwiches stacked with a 100% Angus beef burger, Alaskan cod or grilled chicken and fully customizable with additional toppings. This creation led to the Route 30 Burger, which is still on the Rutter’s menu.

Weiner also found that sampling at 2 a.m. or soon after the bars close can be successful, especially for newer and indulgent menu items. “These are great customers” for trying new food items, he said.

“A key to successful sampling is having the right people on the sampling team.”


To plan for the costs associated with sampling, “calculate your estimated food and labor costs, create an estimate and determine your anticipated sales increase—and be sure to track the results,” said Weiner, who recommends a 2-2-1 plan: Dedicate about two labor hours per day for two rotating samples per week.

Weiner suggested that retailers focus efforts on quality products customers haven’t tried yet or showcase the new daypart LTOs and products such as new coffee or frozen carbonated beverage flavors. “You may be surprised by the impact this will have on your growth and profitability,” including faster trial of new items and an estimated 20% lift in units while sampling.

Sampling is also a great way to engage with supplier partners to support your program. Ask them what’s new and coming to market for LTO foodservice items or new product lines and be the first to bring that excitement to customers.


There are a few methods to the madness behind sampling, such as which items to sample and when. For example, during the busy morning rush, sample a midday LTO to get the customer thinking about lunch.

And during the lunchtime rush, get customers thinking about breakfast or dinner with fresh meals to go. The idea is to generate FOMO (fear of missing out) if an LTO is gone before they get their hands on it.

Whitney Ray, vice president, client experience for Sunflower Group, an experiential marketing agency that is part of Advantage Solutions, said that in-store sampling is one of the only marketing strategies that can deliver on the emotional and functional benefits of a brand or product, which creates “memorable experiences that matter for the shopper” and builds stronger brand connectivity, increased purchase conversion and loyalty.

So, which sampling method is more effective—active or passive?

Most retailers agree that active sampling yields the best results. Passive sampling may not be the appropriate technique for certain products, like hot prepared foodservice, which should be showcased as fresh and delicious as possible.

Since 2002, Kwik Trip has run an active sampling program at its stores. “I’m not a fan of passive sampling because you can’t always watch the product and the tray” and communicate potential allergens with customers, said Servais.

For Kwik Trip, each store samples for 20 hours a week, and labor and the cost of the samples are included in a separate budget from the store. “We have a dedicated ‘Food Product Demonstrator’ for this purpose,” said Servais.

Employee interaction with the customer is important—in most cases the employee has only three to five seconds to pitch the sample. “Realistic expectations need to be set on what that interaction will look like and the type of dialogue that can happen in a condensed timeframe. Irrelevant products, long interactions and oversized setups are just a few planning downfalls that can lead to a negative experience,” said Ray.

Servais agrees that a key to successful sampling is having the right people on the sampling team. “They are our ‘food ambassadors’ and have a lot of interaction with the customers,” he said. To help them gain knowledge of the food and programs, Kwik Trip publishes a monthly “Food Product Demonstrating Newsletter” that highlights new food products like meal kits, pizzas and limited time offers, pricing and holidays.

“We have been effectively sampling our food in our stores for almost 20 years—it works!” said Servais.

Chrissy Blasinsky

Chrissy Blasinsky

Chrissy Blasinsky is the digital and content strategist at NACS. She can be reached at [email protected].

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