Shopping online may be more convenient and even cheaper at times than shopping in-store, but the in-store shopping experience will always be better in at least one way: Consumers can score free samples while they shop.
Sure, some websites may throw in a discounted add-on item with your purchase, but at countless bricks-and-mortar stores you can sample products while you shop without actually having to commit to making a purchase. At some stores, the free sample may just be a sliver of food, while at others it could end up being an entire meal. Oftentimes, the trick to finding the best free samples is simply good timing.
The best opportunities for scoring freebies tend to be when a company is introducing a new product in the store, according to Julia Scott, who blogs about deals at BargainBabe.com. Likewise, when the seasons change, she says there is a better chance of stores rolling out more free samples for new and in-demand products. And if that fails, stores commonly provide freebies to customers who provide their email address or start following the company on Facebook and Twitter.
However, certain retailers are generous enough with their free samples that you won't need to resort to these tactics. MainStreet asked several shopping experts to weigh in on their favorite stores for landing free stuff on a regular basis without having to make a purchase.
Whole Foods and Trader Joe's
Say what you will about Whole Foods' prices, but this grocery store chain specializing in natural and organic products offers up more product samples than most.
"Whole Foods is by far my favorite place for samples," says Rachel Holland, the writer behind SurvivingTheStores.com who tracks down food and retail deals. "They always have fresh fruit samples, and it's always fun to try new 'healthier' products."
Trader Joe's, arguably one of Whole Foods' biggest competitors in the organic market, is also known for its free samples. In fact, many locations actually have a special station set up in the store offering a large assortment of free samples that changes throughout the day. This writer has even seen a Trader Joe's location offer complimentary espresso next to free samples of garlic bread and pasta, a veritable feast.
You don't have to go to the gourmet grocery stores to get free samples, though. Holland and others we spoke with point to grocery chains like Kroger, which frequently provide samples of fresh and prepared foods for customers. The key, Holland says, is to try to visit these stores by mid-morning before their samples run out.
Walmart's brand is built on the power of offering consumers a good bargain, so it should come as little surprise that this chain would have an abundance of free samples.
In fact, the company has a special section of its website devoted to advertising coupons that can be redeemed in stores for free samples as well as limited-time, online-only offers for samples that are delivered to consumers within a few weeks. These samples range from toiletries to household cleaners, though as Scott notes, more often than not the samples seem to be geared more towards women. Indeed, as I write this, the two samples being offered on the site are Poise Hourglass Pads and Playtex Gentle Glide tampons.
Target also promotes free samples on its website every day, but unlike Walmart, none of these can be redeemed in stores. Instead, users must wait 8-10 weeks for the samples to be delivered. But if you're quick enough to snatch up the offers before they sell out and patient enough to wait for them to ship, you can get some excellent giveaways like Kleenex tissues, Garnier Moisture Rescue cream and even a bag of beauty products.
Lowe's and Home Depot
Any fathers reading this probably shouldn't expect to get a free tool chest from these home improvement chains, but your kids just might.
Once every month, Home Depot offers workshops specifically for children to pursue crafts projects like building helicopters, fire trucks and yes, toolboxes that they can take home afterward. Lowe's has a similar program that takes place every Saturday.
"These are a huge hit in my household," says Ryan Eubanks, owner of HeyItsFree.net, which rounds up the best freebies each day. "I can't tell you how many toys and little gadgets from Lowe's we have lying around."
Usually we tell readers not to shop when hungry because it makes you buy more, but we'll make an exception for Costco. For this chain, you may just get your money's worth by shopping on an empty stomach.
"When you walk into Costco, they have professional representatives sampling products in every department," says Stephanie Nelson, better known as the Coupon Mom. As she tells it, shoppers on the prowl for free samples may just meet their match in Costco, as every aisle seems to offer a different product — from pizza samples in the frozen section to mini sandwiches near the deli foods.
"You can really just go around Costco to five or six departments and get five or six things and call it a meal," she said. "I call it fattening."
Makeup stores like Sephora and Aveda are great places to land some freebies, but doing so may require a little bit of schmoozing with the staff.
"There are a lot of ways you can massage a freebie out of pretty much any makeup counter, but really you just have to be friendly and build a relationship," says Scott from BargainBabe. In some cases, that might mean holding up a conversation with the employee behind the counter; in others, you might simply be asked to participate in a quick 10-minute tutorial and trial of a new product.
Sephora, in particular, is known for offering small product samples to customers that may be good for one or two uses. Several times a year, certain Sephora locations will even go so far as to offer more "high-quality freebies" like complimentary mascara and eye shadow products, Scott says.
If all of that isn't enough to satisfy your craving for free things, there is of course one day every year where you can do even better.
Dozens and dozens of retailers offer tremendous freebies to shoppers on their birthday, whether it's a free steak at Black Angus or a free scoop of ice cream at Cold Stone.