We compared Costco's and Sam's Club's free samples -- and the winner was clear

Business Insider/Mary HanburyCostco is known for its hearty samples.
  • Costco and Sam’s Club are known for their generous sample policy.
  • Members frequently brag on Twitter about heading to these stores for a free lunch.
  • We taste tested samples from both locations and found that Costco was the clear winner.

On paper, Sam’s Club and Costco are almost identical – both are membership-based warehouse stores that offer customers discounted prices on products bought in bulk and other services such as eye and ear exams, a pharmacy, one-hour photo printing, and a food court.

In March, Business Insider’s Jessica Tyler compared the experience of shopping at these two chains and found that the only major difference was the price of memberships – Sam’s Club costs $US15 less annually than Costco.

But it all comes down to the details. Costco was the undisputed winner in a series of food-based comparisons done by Business Insider’s Hollis Johnson – it won best food court overall was the clear leader on individual food items such as hot dogs and pizza slices.

With this in mind, we decided to put one of their best-known perks to the test: the free samples.

Both chains are known for their generous sample policy and customers frequently brag on Twitter about heading to the stores for a free meal.

Sam's ClubTwitter/ @mgcochran

There is a method to their madness, however. By offering free samples these stores improve the shopping experience for the customer and make them more loyal. It’s also a way for customers to try new products and spur them into buying more.

“What started as a fun idea more than 30 years ago is now a core experience that our members love. Sharing samples is a great way to highlight cool, new items and showcase the quality and value offered by our curated assortment,” a spokesperson for Sam’s Club told Business Insider.

Both stores were mum on how much this marketing ploy actually boosts sales.

Find out what happened when we visited the two chains below:

We headed to a Sam’s Club store in Secaucus, New Jersey on a grey Tuesday afternoon. The store is located next to a Walmart and conveniently accessed by a direct bus from Manhattan.

Business Insider/Mary Hanbury

When we arrived at the store we made a beeline to the grocery section to test the samples. On approach, we started to hear the dulcet tones of some steel drums.

Business Insider/Mary Hanbury

Unfortunately, there weren’t any live steel drummers, just a speaker. However, sandwiched between the grocery and alcohol sections we came across our first sample station.

Business Insider/Mary Hanbury

Two enthusiastic servers were dishing out samples of “Cocktails in a Bag,” a product made by a company called Lieutenant Blender’s.

Business Insider/Mary Hanbury

The sales assistant explained that you only need to add water or alcohol to the flavored powder mix and give it a shake. If frozen immediately, the mix can last for two years.

The packages came in a mix of flavours such as Margarita, Daiquiri, and Pina Colada. They were extremely sweet, but an easy way to make a cocktail.

We walked around the rest of the grocery section looking for more samples but no such luck. The store was a sample desert.

Business Insider/Mary Hanbury

It seems that we caught the store on a bad day – a sales assistant explained that it will often have more stations (around three to five), but this doesn’t happen every day and is dependent on the weather.

Sam’s Club did not confirm to Business Insider how many sample stations are typically found in stores.

We headed back to New York, disappointed and hungry.

Next, we headed to Costco in Queens on a Friday lunchtime. This was definitely more of a peak shopping time than when we visited Sam’s Club, which was likely another reason why Sam’s samples were lacking.

Business Insider/Mary Hanbury

On our walk towards the food and grocery section, it became immediately clear that this was going to be a sample haven. The aisle towards the back of the store felt almost like a food market with sample stations set up along the way.

The first station we came to was offering espresso sized samples of cold brew coffee, served with half-and-half.

Business Insider/Mary Hanbury

Immediately behind this station, a chiller cabinet was packed full of boxes of the product so if you liked it, you can grab one immediately.

It cost $US9.99 for just under a 1.5 litres.

Shoppers frequently joke on Twitter about heading to Costco for a samples-only lunch.

Business Insider/Mary Hanbury

These mini wontons were not only substantial, but also cooked on the stand and therefore, warm.

At some stations, the samples were less impressive.

Business Insider/Mary Hanbury

There was a good mix between sweet and savoury snacks, but the portions did seem a little meager at times.

Business Insider/Mary Hanbury

Costco reportedly has a policy that encourages unlimited samples. We put this to the test and it lived up to expectations.

The servers didn’t seem to be shocked by our repeat visits and several other customers were also heading back for seconds and thirds.

While some customers might think that Costco is doing them a favour by offering them free snacks, there’s actually a solid business strategy behind it. It’s a way for Costco to encourage customers to try new products that they otherwise wouldn’t have, and to spark cravings — once you have a nibble of chocolate, for example, you’re likely to want more.

Business Insider/Mary Hanbury

This is why the products are located close by.

Business Insider/Mary Hanbury

There was a good mix of Costco’s own brand Kirkland and other labels.

Business Insider/Mary Hanbury

The most impressive and hearty sample came at the end of the line — a quarter of a grilled chicken sandwich, which was cooked at the stand.

Business Insider/Mary Hanbury

As we headed back to the cashier we noticed there were a few more stations set up to tempt customers into some last minute purchases. One of which, was well-known chips brand Doritos.

Business Insider/Mary Hanbury

Our verdict: Costco was the undisputed winner here.

While we certainly caught Sam’s Club at a bad time, Costco had around a dozen sample stations, which is over double what Sam’s Club might have had on one of its better days.

The quality of Costco’s samples was great. However, the biggest bonus was its selection of warm snacks, which were prepared directly on the stand.

The Twitter braggers are absolutely right, you can certainly make a lunch out of this.

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