Now, their navigation seems pointless.
“Costco isn’t as fun anymore,” said Julie, who with her husband is on a first-name basis with the cooking-demo staff, “because they removed the samples.”
As stores across the country regroup, customers will notice several new additions, such as social distancing decals and hand sanitizer dispensers, and one significant subtraction: tables piled with free edibles or shelves laden with makeup testers. In early March, Trader Joe’s attempted to salvage the hallowed tradition by switching from samples on a communal tray to white glove service, with employees handing customers individual bites. Less than two weeks later, the gratis nibbles disappeared. A similar vanishing act occurred at Whole Foods, Costco and Kroger’s, among other supermarkets.
“We understand how important experiencing a product is to know if you like it,” said Kenya Friend-Daniel, a spokeswoman for Trader Joe’s, adding that the company’s return policy remains the same. However, to claim your refund, you must go back into the sidewalk line, a queue that would be more tolerable if it led to, say, a free cup of coffee and plate of cauliflower gnocchi.
In a similar vein, department stores and retailers specializing in beauty products have halted the sometimes transformative, sometimes clownish, experience of playing with makeup. Handling the testers is prohibited, and the swabs and applicators are gone. If you are itching to squirt something on your hands, there’s always sanitizer.
“The testers are there for visual presentation and texture,” said Prama Bhatt, chief digital officer at Ulta Beauty, which has more than 1,260 stores in the country. “The pre-covid experience of trying on makeup — we’re not there right now.”
Medical and academic experts say some types of samples should permanently remain in the vault because of the possible health risks. Daniel Williams Hooker, a senior lecturer at Cornell University’s Food Industry Management Program, said food prepared and served at demo stations is safe as long as employees follow food safety and sanitation protocols. However, unsupervised bowls, trays and troughs of cookies, bread, grapes and other snacks are “not great,” he said. Customers can sneeze or cough on the items or flout cocktail party etiquette and spear subsequent samples with the same toothpick.
“I really hope we don’t see that anymore,” Cheyenne Buckingham, news editor at Eat This, Not That, said of the latter presentation. The daughter of the Columbus Costco couple, who has fond childhood memories of Kroger’s samples, added, “But maybe it built up my immune system.”
The idea of placing a shared beauty product near one’s facial mucus membranes rattles physicians. “No, no, no, at anytime,” Cassandra Pierre, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at Boston University’s School of Medicine, exclaimed when I asked her about trying eye liner at a makeup counter. (Hypothetical, I swear.) She said retailers can’t sanitize testers, and customers may reuse an applicator. “It’s difficult to ensure the cleanliness of the samples. People do double dip,” she said. “We’ve already seen the spread of contagious pathogens from makeup.”
Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, cured me of my international travel habit: layering on expensive cosmetics, lotions and scents at airport duty-free stores. “Sty, pinkeye, cold sore, impetigo,” he roll-called as I shuddered at the thought of the stowaways I could’ve brought home.
I am not alone on my island of regret. “Why did I ever do this before — stick my finger in an eye shadow pad and put it on my face?” said Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency, a marketing firm in New York City. “That’s so gross.”
Samples hold a power over us that runs deeper than a berry-stained lip or umami fix. Uri Gneezy, a behavioral economics professor at the University of California at San Diego, said freebies push our reciprocity button: You do something nice for me (for instance, give me a tiny sausage), and I will return the favor (buy a whole box of tiny sausages). Samples can also disrupt the monotony of our shopping list, displacing our same old products with unexpected surprises. Finally, Gneezy said, free samples can make us feel like shrewd consumers. To illustrate his point, he shared the story of a wealthy friend in Chicago who visits Costco weekly for the complimentary lunchtime nibbles. The man can afford to pay for the items — he drops hundreds of dollars during these excursions — but the samples boost his sense of self. “The store gives him $3 of free food and the good feeling of being a smart shopper,” Gneezy said.
When retailers resume giving out samples, consumers may see more of an evolution than a revolution, with single-serving food items and mini-testers in sealed packaging. Digital makeovers via in-store technology or apps could also expand; Ulta Beauty’s GLAMlab tool, for one, features 4,500 products. Katz’s crystal ball reveals a Tom Cruise-like character mixing makeup samples instead of cocktails at a beauty bar. I’ll take a Chanel red lipstick, straight up.
At the Sephora on 14th Street NW in D.C., open testers lined the shelves, with nary a fingerprint or cotton tip spoiling the pristine powders. Signs reminded customers that the products are for looking, not touching. Still, I had to fight the temptation to swipe my finger through the glittery Diva Feva. A nearby Bluemercury curbs the urge by covering its displays with plastic.
I tried the Virtual Artist, but felt like Betty Boop on a warped movie reel. The lipstick “sample” bounced across my mask, and the false lashes fluttered like a nervous tic. I had to squint to see the grass-green eye shadow on my lids. In the perfume section, a beauty adviser offered me a whiff of Perfect by Marc Jacobs on a paper wand. When I couldn’t smell the scent through my face covering, she stepped back so that I could inhale without interference. I wandered over to the Anastasia eyebrow section, where an employee explained the difference between the soft and medium brown. I wasn’t grasping the idea of yellow and orange undertones, so she found a mascara applicator and brushed two streaks on a tissue, the closest I could get to a live test. I purchased the gel and snapped up free packets of lotion stashed behind the counter. Then, I walked down to Whole Foods, my erstwhile grazing ground.
Back home, I unpacked my purchases. I brushed the gel on my brows and tossed the receipt — a keeper. I poured Nature’s Path’s Golden Turmeric cereal into a bowl and immediately wished I had sampled the breakfast food in advance. If only I had had one flake in a sealed package to warn me off the whole box.
Read more from our series on endangered experiences: