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How to Stop Customers Who Take Advantage of Free Samples

Retailers share how they respond to such customers and make the most of the free samples provided by brands

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This article originally appeared at our sister publication, PETS+.

PLANNING TO GRAB a kitten food sample for the customer she was helping, Deedee walked to the sample bins at the back of her store. An empty bin where the bag should have been stared up at her. Deedee frowned as she, for the third time that week, headed to the adjacent staff-only storage room where she kept additional sample stock. No dice.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual pet businesses and people.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

JODI ETIENNE is the founder and owner of Razzle Dazzle Doggie Bow-tique in Bradley, IL. After spending many years as an elementary school teacher, educating pet parents became Jodi’s new mission. Since 2005, Razzle Dazzle’s friendly, knowledgeable staff has helped guide community members in making healthy choices regarding pet health and nutrition. Jodi shares her life with her amazing husband, Steve (AKA the maintenance man), Shih Tzu rescues Poppy and Growlie, and Arabian horses Rez, Brach and Joey.

Manufacturers were eager to oblige when Deedee requested samples for her customers, but recently the kitten and cat food bins were emptying much too quickly. During her many years in business, the sample bins had proven to be an excellent way of encouraging customers to venture beyond their normal brand choices. After all, the samples came free to the store and were an easy way for customers to try products before buying, especially without taking up valuable sales associate time when the store was really hopping. Deedee’s food-samples display consisted of simple wooden shelves filled with small galvanized bucket bins. A cute chalkboard sign said, “Try a free sample, but don’t be a .” The offer of free samples had never been abused by the customers — until recently, it seemed.

Deedee scratched her head and decided to ask her crew if they knew what was up with the disappearing kitten and cat food samples. All fingers pointed to Cheryl, a longtime senior on a fixed income who purchased food for her indoor cat. Deedee recalled recently talking with Cheryl about a feral cat with kittens showing up in her yard, and she had tried to connect her customer with a local cat rescue for help with spaying the cat and rehoming the family. Cheryl had expressed interest in rehoming the feral kittens, but refused to share her contact information so the rescue could get in touch. She only wanted help on her terms.

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One of Deedee’s staff reported that Cheryl had asked a new staffer to hand her a shopping bag from behind the counter, then had blatantly filled that bag with samples before taking her other items to the checkout counter. Another staffer recalled confronting Cheryl as she exited the staff-only storage room after filling her bag with samples because the bins on the store floor were empty. Pointing to the “Staff Only” sign, the staffer told Cheryl she was not allowed in that area. Cheryl had angrily left the store, taking the samples with her while proclaiming loudly to all in the store how disappointed she was in how she was being treated. Apparently recovering from that disappointment, Cheryl was back a few days later purchasing small amounts of food for her indoor cat while sneaking a few more cat food samples on the side.

Not wanting to punish the customers who utilized the free sample area as intended, Deedee sighed as she struggled to formulate a plan of action. She felt torn. Having too many cats to feed on a tight budget was a huge challenge for a senior on a fixed income. However, Cheryl had refused the effort to get help with the feral cats. Deedee was sympathetic, but she also had a business to run with other paying customers whose picky cats needed to try a sample before buying the product.

The Big Questions

  • Should Deedee confront Cheryl the next time she comes in?
  • How could Deedee help Cheryl while retaining samples for other customers?
  • Should samples be locked up and only handed out by staff?
  • Any other advice for Deedee?

 

Jennifer Moore B.
NORTH RIDGEVILLE, OH

This has been an ongoing problem at my store, people taking massive amounts of samples. We finally had to put samples in the back and only give them out one or a few at a time. It’s annoying and uses valuable employee time, but I had customers feeding their cats or small dogs with samples only.

Becci S.
SCOTTSDALE, AZ

I don’t leave our samples as a free-for-all because they are a talking point for our team to tell a customer about the food and why it’s a good option. It also enhances the customer experience to receive a free sample directly from a team member and perhaps makes them more likely to return to purchase the item. I would tell Cheryl that the samples are in reserve for new customers, but that we would be happy to let her know when we have short-dated or recently expired products to help her out until the kittens are rehomed. I would also remind her of the importance of vetting and finding them homes. Because rescue is in my blood, I would probably go get the mom and kittens and do it myself if I truly felt she wasn’t going to act responsibly.

Janet C.
GEORGETOWN, TX

We implemented changes to curb this issue: 1. No longer are samples on the sales floor. 2. Samples are kept in a stockroom only accessible to employees. Sidebar: With repeat offenders (i.e. the couple whose M.O. was to loudly and proudly exclaim at checkout they used the free samples as treats), we told them there were no more samples, but they were welcome to buy treats. In a sense we fired them, as we also mentioned they should try a nearby store. Sometimes you need to be OK with that. Also, we charge $1 per bag for customers who think samples grow on the backyard sample tree. Any money collected goes into a fund for a local senior dog rescue.

Loree S.
SAN DIEGO, CA

We keep all samples in our backroom. When discussing foods with customers, we offer a sample or two. We enter their info into our POS system along with a note about foods discussed and samples dispersed. We have a high rate of return, and when the customer comes back, we are able to look up the samples and sell them the food their pets enjoyed!

Diane B.
MORRIS, MN

The customer is obviously taking advantage. And having refused to seek help to get the cats spayed, this is a problem she has created for herself. Retail stores are feeling such an economic pinch. I suggest that free samples be handed out from behind the checkout counter. That way it can be a way to converse with customers about their pets, their needs and how we can address them. “Here’s a free sample. Let us know how it works and if you would like us to keep it stocked for you.” I do this, and it’s a real selling point, when you have made that customer feel special, that you would stock something just for them. I know as a customer, I would come back out of a sense of duty, that they were depending on my business, which I would gladly give.

Susan N.
CHESTER, NJ

It’s really a tough call. While you certainly do not want an individual to take all of the samples, I would find it hard to confront this woman. I would try to find a way to get her some cat food. I would ask my distributors for a few free bags a month. If that did not work, I would try to hook her up with a local food pantry. I would also put conditions on whatever help I offered. I would insist that all of the kittens and the mother cat be fixed and that the woman find homes for the kittens.

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Ramie G.
EVANSTON, IL

We had a similar issue during the pandemic when we created a pet food pantry. Customers added to it as well. Two people started taking everything, and I had to talk to them nicely about other ways we could help. I have a list of food pantries that offer pet food, shelters that offer assistance, and manufacturers that give to organizations that offer this help. I can’t do everything for everyone, and you have to draw the line where you feel you should. I’d offer expired goods for the feral cats instead and explain to her why. Then remove the bins from her sight and direct staff not to give out bags — we have a bag tax in our town so most people bring their own. You can help without being overburdened and letting a few people ruin your efforts.

Joyce M.
FARIBAULT, MN

Thirty-four years ago this week, we opened our pet store and almost immediately had to put samples in an employees-only room. People see “Free” and take advantage. It was, and still is, easier to talk to customers about what they are feeding and then go get a few options from the backroom. And as I recall, some of the takers were people who had plenty of money, but just couldn’t help themselves.

Tonya C.
GRAND HAVEN, MI

Put them out of her reach. We do not keep samples on the shop floor nor free treats for visitors. They have to be handed out by our staff. Both have been severely taken advantage of previously. It’s not fair to the manufacturer who provides the free samples nor to the customers who need them to decide on the best food for their pets. We must protect the samples and use as intended. You can refer her to a pantry or a rescue to help with her needs.

Victoria P.
ATLANTA, GA

We keep our samples in the storeroom and hand them out at our discretion for the same reason. We set up a donation box instead, and when there is donated cat food, we let people who feed ferals have it on a first-come first-served basis. If I get too many samples or if they expire, I put them in the donation box. It’s a collection box for a pet pantry.

Shane S.
MILL CREEK, WA

Deedee should absolutely (but calmly) confront Cheryl for entering premises off-limits to customers; it’s a major invasion of privacy. She should also let Cheryl know that in addition to trespassing, her behavior after was uncalled for and she is no longer welcome in the store. “Customers” who take advantage and effectively steal from us are not worth trying to placate. If Deedee is nicer than me, she should still confront Cheryl, let her know that her past behavior is unacceptable and that she cannot continue to take samples, but that Deedee can set aside damaged bags of cat food for her. I would suggest adding that further violations should have a consequence of being asked to leave, and this is Cheryl’s “last chance.”

Claudia L.
WASHINGTON, NJ

Offer Cheryl near-expiring bags of cat food at a deep discount or expired bags for free. Not the brand she buys for her indoor cat —let her know you are happy to help, but she will not have a choice of the food. I had a similar situation and made this offer. Instead of being thankful, the customer felt we should give her the brand she feeds and that if not, she didn’t want any “charity.”

Kathleen F.
STOUGHTON, WI

I am sympathetic to both. Rather than confronting Cheryl, Deedee could engage her by asking about the kittens and suggesting that rescues could provide food while working to gather the mother and kittens to get them vetted and into a safe environment. So often, well-meaning people want to help, but many seniors feel their independence and dignity are being taken away. I hope that Cheryl can be an active partner in the welfare of the feral litter.

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Stephanie S.
AMARILLO, TX

We kept our samples behind the counter. We always were generous with a newly adopted dog or one having issues. However we had the exact same thing. We posted a policy that said “One free sample per purchase.” Staff were allowed to give extras, but that was their decision. I would post something like “In order to find the right food for your pet, please talk to the staff about the issues you are having and we can send you home with the right samples.”

Barbara C.
THORNWOOD, NY

Put the samples elsewhere so only staff has access. Giving out samples is generally part of a broader conversation about food in our store. Years ago, samples were more readily available and we had a variety of samples near the register, but there were occasionally people abusing this. The customer who is feeding strays could also be offered a large bag at a substantial discount if the owner wants to help her.

Keela H.
SIDNEY, MT

I would move them closer to the counter, helps with accountability. I don’t think I would say anything … you know … she knows. You’ve created a way to oversee the samples.

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