Try before you buy - Ashdale Business Consulting

Try before you buy


A few years ago I was asked by a friend to help out at a local food fair that she was attending.  My friends products were what is known as tray-bakes, the likes of brownies, flapjack etc.  To say it was a nice day would be an understatement with the weather definitely having an impact on attendances.

A consequence of this was that sales were much lower than we had hoped.  About halfway through the day we agreed to start offering free samples of the brownies as a way of generating interest.  I am pleased to report that this tactic had the desired effect and sales picked up almost immediately.  Once potential customers had the opportunity to sample the brownies, which were particularly good, in most cases a sale soon followed.  Of course there were a few people who had no intention of buying, particularly children, but on balance it worked out well.

This approach of try before you buy is by no means new and for anyone who attends food fairs on a regular basis is something you will come across on a regular basis.  So it clearly works.

That said, as a practice it is far less common when it comes to restaurants etc. and I wonder why this is the case?


What’s the point…

Of course giving free food away can often feel counter intuitive.  The whole point of what you are in business to do is to make money, so why do it?  So there has to be method to this apparent madness.  And of course there is.

Talking to people across the industry and reading the various articles on the subject there are a few key reasons operators give for why they think giving free samples away works for them.

Top of the list seems to be to encourage customers to try something new.  As we have discussed in the past customers on the whole tend to be creatures of habit.  Offering free samples, tasters etc. can be a nice way of disrupting this habitual behaviour.  It can be particularly effective when trying to trade customers up to more expensive or higher margin menu items.

Offering free samples is also a great way for operators and chefs to get valuable feedback on new menu items.  It can provide instant customer insight into what may or may not work without taking the risk of putting something on the menu and then waiting to see if it will sell or not.

Another use of free samples can be as either a thank you or an apology.  If you have guests who are having to wait for a table then offering up some mini almost canapé/hors d’oeuvres style samples will often be most welcome without detracting from what they are likely to order later.  At the other end of service the same approach can be used but obviously the focus this time is more likely to be on sampling desserts or cheeses depending on your food offer.

Although it’s not a hard benefit don’t underestimate the feelings of good will you can also generate in outlet when you give away free food.  As long as customers don’t come to expect it but see it more of a treat, customers are likely to feel more positive towards you which in turn is more likely to encourage them to return more often.


Can I afford it…

The main push back I get when I suggest this type of approach to my clients is whether or not they can afford to give away free food.  Of course what they do in this area will vary on an outlet to outlet basis, but in most cases the simple answer is yes of course they can.

One of the key things I recommend is that operator’s budget for providing free samples in the same way that they would budget for a certain amount of wastage.  But even if they don’t do that, assuming they aren’t being silly in terms of what they are giving away the costs involved aren’t massive.  For example cooking an extra pizza or portion of pasta is not going to break the bank.  Even with more expensive menu items there are ways and means of providing samples.  Customers won’t expect things to look exactly the same as they would for the full blown menu item; the main thing aim is to stimulate either their taste buds or their interest and ideally both!


Who doesn’t like free booze…

As with many things we talk about what works for food can also work for drinks.  And in some cases it can work even better.  Over recent years try before you buy has become more common when it comes to the world of drinks, especially beer.

Buying a full pint of something you might not like the taste off is enough to put most people off taking such a risk.  By allowing customers to sample a beer or two beforehand is a proven winner when it comes to driving sales.  It can also help educate customers on the different styles which are available which they previously may not have tried.

The same can also be said for wine although more care needs to be taken in this area due to the potential costs involved.  You don’t want to open an expensive bottle only to find that the wine is not to the customer taste and then have no way of selling what’s left.  That’s not to say you can’t use sampling, it just means you need to be more creative and organised.  For example as long as you have a number of tables who you would like to engage with then the cost of one bottle can easily be recuperated if it leads to sales of 3 or more fully priced ones.

You can also do the same with spirits although from a personal point of view I am less convinced about the commercial benefits of sampling in this area.  You probably need to know your customers quite well in order to balance up the risk versus reward equation when providing free samples of higher costs products.