Our tour guide ended our walking tour at a sweet shop in Istanbul. No sooner than our group got there, several attendants offered us platefuls of samples – halwas made of rose, fig, almond, cashew, sesame and even chocolate, nut mixes and other savouries. We topped this off with a glass of pomegranate juice. All of this was free – a friendly gesture of the hospitality that is characteristic of Turkish culture.
You have already guessed the aftermath. Nearly everybody from the group emerged from that shop having bought bagfuls of stuff.
To sell something, is to earn somebody’s trust. One way of doing that is to offer free samples. That is what most gourmet outlets do. It also helps explain why Apple and Samsung invest in huge showrooms for people to play around with their gadgets. Numerous internet services offer a free trial period before they start charging you.
But trust isn’t the whole explanation. With free samples, there is something else at play.
When I try a sample somewhere, I always end up buying something. Having consumed a free sample in the presence of a salesperson makes it difficult to step away and not buy something. By offering a sample, the shop and the salesperson have already done me a favour. This creates some tension between us and people often purchase something to resolve this tension.
Therefore, it is important to realize that a free sample isn’t actually free. It exploits a tendency for reciprocity that is hard wired in us. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but your decision about making a purchase might be more rational before you try it out for free.