Monday, February 7, 2011

No Such Thing as a Free Food Sample


                                           Photo by Colin Rose 

On Wednesday mornings I go to yoga. The way my schedule works, I have 45 minutes between dropping my kids at school and the class I take. My little ritual involves stopping at Cosi for a mint tea and then curling up with my kindle in the “cozy” pillow/couch area at yoga. Last week, as I took my place on line at Cosi I heard something that made me shudder. “Would you like a free bagel with that?” the counter person queried. “Um, sure” businessman replied. It was the next customer’s turn “would you like a free bagel?” Latte woman, with a fruit cup, said, “no, I shouldn’t…but ok, yes.” I felt bitterness building inside me where mint tea was meant to be.  When I was up to the “perilous plate” I was asked the question of the day. “No! I don’t want a bagel, that’s mean of you to ask,” I said seemingly lighthearted. “Actually, can I have a free apple instead?” “Nope, just bagels today we’re promoting our new squagel.”  I headed to yoga, indignation ignited, thinking about those innocent people manipulated into consuming over 300 calories and 61 grams of carbohydrate.

On one hand, you can’t fault stores and restaurants for offering samples. It’s actually smart marketing. I showed up to ski recently and found out it was “demo day”.  After testing out a few pair, I ended up with spanking new Dynastars that I love but hadn’t even contemplated earlier. At food clubs there are the “demo dollies” offering samples. Research has shown that 7 out of 10 shoppers say they occasionally or usually buy a product they sample. After years of watching sample whores (term not mine, there are Facebook groups devoted to them though), I think the estimate above is a little high but sampling, for owners, does have its payoff. Looking at the photo above, is there not something amiss about enticing people with free, often unhealthy, food? It may not be a business’ responsibility to look out for the health of their patrons but they also don’t need to pour salt in our wounds (literally).

I know many people have a hard time turning their back on perceived “savings.” Yet processed food isn’t really saving you anything. It stimulates your appetite, entices you spend more and at some point you will probably have to “pay” for poor eating. I can hear you now, how is a couple of bites doing any harm? Nonsense, one can easily down over 900 calories while shopping. I credit another dietitian for doing the math. Another thing to think about and hopefully deter you is the chance of food borne illness in those innocent-seeming bites. Many foods are left out for long periods of time. Not too long ago, there was an E coli outbreak traced to cheese samples at a major food retailer.

My advice is don’t sample anything you wouldn’t buy if you had to pay. Also, predetermine what you will order at a restaurant or what you will buy at a store (using a list) to avoid impulse decisions free and otherwise.  Cosi, which does have fantastic salads (and great tea), says in its squagel promotional materials “in case you need another reason to try a squagel now try one free.” In that example, “free” is the reason or “tipping point”. Let’s erase free as the sway vote. After all “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” or free squagel.
Are you enticed by food when it’s free? Would you describe yourself as a sample whore…or reformed whore?  Isn’t the concept of a squagel (square bagel) a little silly?


**Congratulations to Carrie the winner of our Food Should Taste Good giveaway.



16 comments:

  1. As a student, free food seems to pop up everywhere on campus. I think people are wired to either always respond to free food, or to not give it a second look. That may have even been part of the basis of Cosi's promotion, "not everyone will take one." Your advice is right on -- if you weren't going to choose a bagel anyway, don't let Cosi (or anyone) choose your breakfast for you.

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  2. As always, thoughtful advice here. I do like the idea of a free sample. Sometimes, I take it. Sometimes, I don't. Ultimately depends on my state of mind at the time, how religious I am about watching my food consumption at the time, how good the sample looks or sounds, etc. Also, I think there is a big difference between offering a tiny morsel of something (a bona fide taste) and offering an entire bagel... As always great food for thought here (pun very much intended).

    Now... off to Cosi to chip away at my next novel. Let's see if I get offered that free bagel!

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  3. People love anything free, whether it be food or some piece of plastic junk. I think when it happens at a store or restaurant people feel like they are spending money there so they are entitled to the free whatever and say yes no matter what it is. I personally wouldn't eat something just b/c it was free, but I'm not sure if that comes with a degree in nutrition. I agree too that people feel oh what's the big deal, a little sample won't hurt me. Being a sample whore, however, can certainly add up over time.

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  4. good points I understand though have given away free apps lol, I have made dosa from scratch before hubby is from India :-)

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  5. Oh, this is such a hard one for me to do in the grocery store. Central Market, our grocery that's a combo of Whole Foods and Trader Joes but better than both combined, has food themes each month. That means a gazillion samples throughout the store. January was citrus month, so not too bad and I got tons of great recipe ideas. But February is Chocolate Month...I must avoid the store!

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  6. Marie, my exception to the rule is Farmers' market fruit and veggie samples though even those can gross me out as people but their dirty hands in them. Aidan yes, it does make a difference where we are on our personal strictness scale. Though it does matter if bites are big or small. I think the small bites can add up pretty easily.

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  7. hehe...you wouldn't be offered a free bagel or anything if you did your grocery shopping here in Germany.;-))

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  8. I almost always avoid the samples. The only time I will sample is if it's coffee (black only). If they are giving away tiny bits of pastry samples at the coffee shop, admittedly I might try it as well. Only because that's as close to the real deal as I'll ever get because I don't permit myself to indulge in pastries.

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  9. I absolutely agree with "if you wouldn't buy it then don't sample it because it's free" Notice they never have free samples of nutritious food.

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  10. Love the lingo in your post-Squagel and Sample Whore :-) Since I don't eat gluten, I pretty much avoid all store samples unless I know they are gluten free (not many are!). I don't really have a problem with SMALL sample sizes, but agree that they can add up, and I think your philosophy to not sample anything you wouldn't pay for is a good one. And, yes, definitely go to the store with a shopping list in hand (and a FULL stomach!) to avoid impulse buys!

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  11. Angie, no food samples in Germany? I'm coming, ha. Tands, it's interesting to compare whether a small sample satisfies a craving or intensifies one. France, Whole Foods has fruit samples but the germ potential still ruins them for me. EA- interesting GF makes you more selective, we should all be selective.

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  12. I have to read what's in the ingredients before I buy any food products so whether it's free or not, it might contain something that I don't eat. So, getting a food product free is not a motivator for me to buy it.

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  13. eating samples depends on how hungry i am...i would eat five bagels (or squagels) if it was around 3pm. (well, not five, but i'd take the free one!)

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  14. The yoga is obviously not working. If one doesn't have the presence of mind and intention to lightly ignore a free food sample, choosing instead, to make another person's minimum wage job all the more 'fun'.

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