Sunday, January 03, 2010


Many big-box retailers and supermarkets set up stations at which customers can taste food samples, obviously hoping to convince them to buy a particular product. It's not uncommon for a customer to be able to get a sample of soup, meat, snack food, dessert and a small beverage during a single visit.

Not everyone will care for the sample enough to want to buy the product, of course, but is it OK to sample even if you have no intention of ever buying, say, the smoked-apple turkey sausage or the brown-sugar crumble pecan pie? Or is it wrong to use up the store's samples if you know that you won't even consider a purchase?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at

You can also respond to the poll with this question that will appear on the right-hand side of the blog until polling is closed.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Eric McNulty said...

If I'm shopping and the store offers it, I feel no problem taking it. I may purchase the product at another time or recommend it to a friend. Or I may never purchase it at all.

The offer of a sample carries no implicit or explicit quid pro quo to purchase. It is a marketing technique just like running an add with a mouth-watering photograph of the product.

Perhaps the question you should ask is whether it is ethical to go to the store specifically to take advantage of the food samples without an intention to purchase. Some of those big box stores offer considerable opportunities for grazing.

Bill Jacobson said...

Jeffrey, If retailers were to limit samples to only those who were intending to buy the sampled product coming in, they might as well forgo the samples altogether. Samples provide the store many benefits:

1) As you note, sales of the sampled product do increase when sampled.
2) Customers who buy the sampled product are more likely to repeat buy the product on future visits.
3) Customers who sample the product are more willing to buy similar products in the retailer's offerings.
4) Customers who eat in a store are willing to buy more products in total during that visit.
5) Customers who eat in a store are likely to shop for longer times than without them (Same reason many stores provide restrooms)
5) Customers are more willing to choose that retailer to shop at in the future, due to the samples.

Only the first two goals are subverted if the customer takes the sample adamant not to buy it and, has often been the case, the sample may just change his mind! Don't knock the Adelle's smoked-apple turkey sausage either! I became a regular purchaser of it due to a sample. :)

Bill Jacobson
Cypress, CA

ECS said...

I teach ethics-- paralegal( basically attorney) ethics. the course pointed something very crucial- what is ethical is not the same as what is moral. And it's not.

BUT-- this is nit even worth discussing . Companies choose to spend money on their marketing. They know full well some fooed wil be eaten from greed, n it pure investigation and imminent purchase-ness. (OK I made up the word.)

So, yes, it is just FINE to eat at Trader Joe or Costco if you are in no way intending to buy the marketers wares.

There was and may still be a question of ethics/morals when junk faxes make ME bear the marketer's costs of sending me marketing messages. Taft's why it's illegal now. But food samples are-- free. In the paper, the mail-- or the store.

Please. Are we that lacking in real questions?