Can online samples inspire purchases, trips?

March 25, 2011

CPG samples brands online. More retailers may soon apply a private-label twist to this concept.

Classic in-store, on-pack and direct-mail product trials are a numbers game: they capture unidentified shoppers at random and hope to convert a good percentage into buyers. By contrast, online product sampling occurs at the request of screened and identified consumers who have demonstrated interest.

This allows CPG to lessen waste, engage consumers in conversations with brands, and later survey sample recipients to measure campaign effectiveness at driving product sales in retail stores. “Consumers are more particular about their purchasing, researching more online, and making lists and considering items before entering stores,” Larry Burns, chief executive of Start Sampling, told The Lempert Report in an interview, as he detailed how online sampling could be an effective conversion tool.

How effective? Using dunnhumby USA data at Kroger, a Start Sampling client was able to track trial and repeat sales of a sampled branded food product over a five-month period. Results were proprietary, but Burns could share that sales rates were five times greater than in the non-sample group. Referring to online sampling in general, 32% of consumers make a first purchase of the sampled brand, according to the StartSampling Retail Network normative database, the result of over 500,000 consumer interviews.  Of these brand purchasers who received samples via a retailer website, more than 80% report buying the item at that retailer.

Online sampling typically runs concurrently in multiple consumer touchpoints – a brand’s own website, the manufacturer’s broader marketing platform website (such as SC Johnson Right@Home or Procter & Gamble Home Made Simple), retailer websites (Walmart, Costco), or via media buys on informational websites in the right behavioral context (such as shampoo sampling on a site that writes about hair care).

Retailers that sample CPG brands via their websites can benefit in several ways, explains Burns:

  • Co-branded packages (retailer and CPG brands) delivered free to consumers give the retailer a positive, caring association, as at
  • Private-label sampling can generate trial and purchase, with the sampling expense often borne by the contract manufacturers.
  • In development is a retailer-specific Sample Showcase of eight to ten samples weighing up to two pounds, and distributed by the U.S. Postal Service. The mix could include brands and private label, and consumers could qualify to receive a sample box by answering one to three targeted questions. “Consumers are delighted to receive such a compendium of product….Sampling is heating up as retailers battle for share of mind,” says Burns.

He urges samplers to figure ROI on a cost-per-converted-consumer basis, and to decide on the metrics that will constitute success before fielding any program.