Grocery store samples are one of the perks of in-person shopping but many customers are wondering if COVID-19 has made them extinct. The logistics of handing out food samples to a mask-wearing, socially distanced public are tricky at best and since the start of the pandemic most stores have done away with the perk of allowing customers to try before they buy.
"For obvious reasons, sampling has changed during the pandemic period," David Orgel, an industry consultant and content specialist who focuses on the food, retail and CPG industries told TODAY Food. "However, some food retailers have found creative workarounds, such as with packaged samples in-store and as part of e-commerce deliveries."
Orgel said he believes that we haven't seen the end of free samples, but the way we get them will certainly look a lot different going forward.
"When we reach the other side of this pandemic, retailers will figure out how to best bring back sampling — because it’s important for generating excitement and trial," he said. "Some retailers may adopt a hybrid approach, such as with both packaged and non-packaged. Regardless, it will be important at first to relay safety measures to shoppers so they feel comfortable re-engaging."
Stew Leonard Jr. of Stew Leonard's, a popular tri-state area grocery chain, is optimistic about the future of food samples.
“I think food samples will return, but I don't see them returning in 2021," Leonard told TODAY. "It's going to take a while for customers to get used to it and we are going to keep a close eye on the cruise industry and the casinos to see how they handle it. Right now, our grab and go meals are preferred by our customers because they are pre-packaged by our chefs and safe.”
Costco reintroduced samples this summer, though they looked a lot different than what customers were used to seeing in the past. In one location, a recipe demo was presented behind plexiglass, but prepackaged "dry" samples seemed to be the new normal.
"Our Demo Service is in the process of returning to our warehouses around the world," a representative for Costco said. "This process will be managed with CDC and local health department guidance in each region where we do business. Based on these guidelines product demonstrations may look different in different regions."
Shira Doron, MD, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, told TODAY that the future of grocery store samples will largely depend on what the world is like once we've received the vaccine.
“It's hard to guess which of the pleasures of pre-pandemic days will stay gone and for how long," said Doron. "I think it partly depends on what the virus does in the post-vaccine era. If there is low-level prevalence of COVID-19 forever, with (hopefully small) peaks in the winter, and thus a persistent smoldering fear of infection, things like free samples may not return. If we eradicate the disease like we did smallpox, then I think we will likely see a slow return to a much more normal existence, with delights like free samples returning as well."
Doron said that the public can expect new protocols to be in place if indeed they do return.
"There will probably be modifications to how they are offered, perhaps even rules in place, like a requirement for sneeze guards or that they be handed out by a trained employee." Doron said that while some people will permanently eschew samples, she personally would be OK eating them in the future.
At Trader Joe's those beloved samples are currently unavailable, though there's still a smart and safe way for customers to try new products.
"In accordance with current health and safety guidelines, in general we are not providing food and beverage samples in our stores," PR director Kenya Friend-Daniel told TODAY. "We still encourage our customers to discover products by trying them, and we do this by reminding them that if they buy a product and don’t like it, they can return it for a full refund."