Vol. 127 - NO. 39

Blog Startup CPG

SINCE 2019

Sampling in a
Post-COVID World

Christina Appleton is the founder of Appleton’s Market – Appleton’s Market is a frozen foods company based in Los Angeles, CA. The company produces steamable, microwave-ready Power Veggie Bites, made with locally sourced fresh vegetables, cage-free eggs, and hearty quinoa to turn a snack into a mini meal in less than a minute. She hosted a recent Clubhouse on this topic with Startup CPG’s Erin Fasano, and wanted to make her thoughts on sampling available to the community.

Before diving into the wild world of sampling, it is important to note that the VAST majority of sampling opportunities, especially in a COVID world, are for shelf-stable products. As a self-appointed sampling guru who owns a frozen brand, Christina was frustrated by this and has started to build a lower-cost multi-brand sampling program for products that can ship refrigerated – if you are interested in learning more please drop her a line at christina@appletonsmarket.com

Budget – how should you think about it?

First and foremost, you need to get a strong handle on what your “all in” costs are. This includes your product cost, fulfillment costs for shipping the product, fees associated with the sampling channel/service, and any brand ambassador or booth costs. Once you know what your “spend” is for a particular opportunity you can better estimate if the ROI is there for your brand or not. It is important to note that most of these programs are generally not an immediate payoff, like investing your marketing dollars into a digital acquisition campaign. Depending on the lifecycle of your product, your price point, and how easy it is for a customer to purchase your product it may take up to a month to understand if it “worked” or not.
One other important thing to note on budget – sampling can also be used as an inventory management tool. While most larger scale sampling events require significant shelf life, there are a fair amount of companies that will accept samples that have 1-3 months of shelf life left. Events get a lot more attractive when you are operating at essentially no cost.

Regional vs National sampling – how targeted should you get?

This is a great question, and it all boils down to what your goals and objectives are for the sampling effort. If you are a brand with strong distribution in the east coast, it may not make sense for you to sample at a big event in San Francisco. At the same time, if you do have national distribution you are most likely going to be able to capture some economies of scale with a national sampling partner.

The most important strategy is to focus on creating as few steps/friction points as possible. The more steps your customer has to take from sampling to purchasing the more dropoff you will get and the leakier your “funnel” will get.

Sampling programs affiliated with retailers – brick & mortar and e-comm

Brick & Mortar:

  • Albertsons/Safeway grocery pickup program
  • Showfields – monthly gift bags
  • Pop Up Grocer – sampling events at store (sealed products)


  • Thrive Market – Gift with Purchase Program (both dedicated and shared with other brands – highest ROI marketing activity as brands frequently see the rest of their line sell out and experience high repeat
  • Hive – working on opt in program
  • SunBasket & Hungryroot – marketplace opportunity and order insertion programs. These are really the only opportunities for refrigerated and frozen brands.
Paid digital sampling companies

Both of these options are great Canada-based, female-founded companies:

  • Social Nature: Focuses on better for you products and drives customers to store via freebie vouchers that they send (you pay per send. They’re particularly great for juicing turns at targeted retailers. They also launched a digital sampling program for COVID – usually customer pays small shipping fee to receive sample, they order direct from your site. They collect data on demographics, scores, locations, and retailers.
  • Sampler: They are CPG focused. They send physical sample to customers (can also do vouchers but not the focus) and you can participate in a dedicated brand box or mixed brand box – great for smaller brands to get in at lower tiers. They collect data on demographics, scores, locations, and retailers.
Snack boxes

Caroo (FKA Snacknation), Urthbox, VeganCuts: The largest is Caroo and their min ask is 10K samples (unless vetted brand with special angle for box, then min may be lower e.g. BIPOC founder box). Because this is a large ask, you will get a dedicated dashboard for your campaign with 5-10 different questions/data points as well as free responses. The more specific/targeted you can get with your box the better (e.g. BBQ box for meat rub company)

Tapping into non-food companies
  • Showplace – Partners with AirBnB hosts to supply products in their short term rentals
  • FreeB – early stage company based in Los Angeles that works with meal delivery drivers to distribute samples, coupons and literature
  • Sampling at Events

As the world starts to open up again (and/or we do distanced outdoor events) the world of in person sampling is coming back. Here are some examples of companies that can streamline the process:

  • Recess – all-in-one platform that pulls together events all over the country. You can search by location, event type, event size, etc. Sample size is variable and you can include coupons/marketing materials, all for a pretty low fee per unit.
  • Eli Lunzer – sports events. Right now the biggest ones are celebrity golf invitationals – you can sponsor, be in gift bags, refreshment tents, etc. Have a somewhat higher buy in but for the right brands the sexy nature of celebrity events might be the best fit.
  • Natural Talent – focused on NYC events, partnering with retailers like lululemon and fitness gyms.

Lastly, don’t forget to think outside of the box! Sometimes your current sales channels can also be used as sampling channels, don’t be afraid to ask your partners.

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