The truth about Costco's free food samples

There are plenty of good reasons to go to Costco: There's the joy of scoring a phenomenal deal on a 96-pack of Bagel Bites, there's the food court with all its delectable offerings at jaw-droppingly low prices (hello, $1.50 hot dog and soda combo), and there's the convenience of having an optometrist and a pharmacist at your fingertips. But the free samples? They just might be the best reason of all.

Let's be honest — as consumers, we love anything free, but the free samples at Costco are revered in a way that other grocery stores' samples are not. It's common to hear someone say, "I only go to Costco for the samples," but "I only go to Kroger for the samples"? Not so much. From gourmet sausages to fancy cheese to the trendiest new snacks, you can amass an entire meal's worth of samples while you shop. In fact, you might not know it, but there's no limit to the number of samples you can take. Yes, really.

What other secrets don't you know? Let's dig into the truth behind Costco's free sample program.

Sample workers don't get the Costco benefits

Costco is frequently named a top company to work for due to their competitive compensation (which is well over the federal minimum wage) and generous benefit package (employees receive health and dental insurance, as well as other perks), but unfortunately, since the the workers handing out samples aren't actually employed by Costco, they aren't paid like them. 

All those employees standing behind the sample carts are actually employed by Club Demonstration Services (CDS), and are considered outside vendors. According to Groundswell, this means that the CDS demonstrators are subject to very different working conditions  — they "are required to work part-time for 6.5 hour shifts, and they receive no benefits." Further, they make substantially less than Costco employees, and are only eligible for an hourly rate increase of 25 cents per year. This puts their annual annual take-home pay under $24,000 (as of 2014), approximately "half of what the average Costco workers make."

There's a reason sample workers don't know where products are

Ever wonder why the people giving out the samples never know which aisle the chicken broth or the tomato paste is on? It's because it's not their job to know — the sample workers aren't employed by Costco. You're probably thinking, "But they're in the store all day… surely they must have some idea." Yes, they are in the store all day, but there's a good reason why they can't point you in the right direction of each and every product.

One Redditor who says they serve samples at Costco explained, "Costco rearranges their products almost daily. And the actual reason is because they want to provide a 'Treasure hunt atmosphere' to their members. This leaves them wandering around aimlessly and before they know it, their cart is full and they don't know how it got that way. This is an actual Costco marketing scheme. We've all fallen victim to it. Because of this, we know where the basic things are (milk, deli, chips, etc). But they move everything else around as much as they can. This is why we're usually clueless…"

They might incite a brawl

The area around the Costco sample carts can sometimes feel a bit like a cage match when the masses get pushy, but for the most part exchanging dirty looks or "accidentally" bumping into another customer is as bad as it gets. Every once in a while though, things get heated enough in the quest for freebies that a brawl erupts. 

At a South Carolina Costco in 2018, two men in their 70s got into an altercation over… wait for it… cheeseburger samples. One customer, a 70-year-old man, was patiently waiting his turn in line for a cheese sample when a 72-year-old man cut to the front. Maybe the 70-year-old could have let it slide once, but it happened again in line for a cheeseburger sample. Enough was enough, and after having some words, he hauled off and smacked the 72-year-old in the side of head, knocking off his glasses and hat. Something to remember next time you think about cutting the sample line.

They're more hygienic than you might think

Maybe you've heard a story from a friend of a friend of a friend about a strand of hair, or a fingernail, or a rat tail they've found in a Costco sample. But have you ever found anything sketchy in a sample? Probably not, and you probably won't either.

That's because, according to a Costco sample worker on Reddit, the hygiene practices are pretty stringent. When one Redditor voiced their concerns regarding the cleanliness of not only the employees, but the tools and equipment used to serve the samples, the vendor replied, "Sorry to disappoint, but we have annoyingly strict hygiene policies. All the equipment is sanitized before we use it, we change our gloves every five minutes, and any time a member touches something they aren't supposed to, we throw it away or change it for something clean."

As for the personal hygiene of the workers, they're apparently held to strict standards as well. The sample worker continued, "On a personal level, I'm very clean… Scarily enough, some of my coworkers have been sent home for smelling bad." Slightly cringeworthy, yes, but on the upside, at least we can take comfort in knowing that there are consequences to bad hygiene on the job.

They dramatically boost sales

Do you have enough willpower to taste a free sample of chocolate cake and walk away without said chocolate cake in your cart? Probably not, and there's actually psychology behind it. 

According to The Atlantic, free samples at stores like Costco can help boost sales considerably. "When we compare it to other in-store mediums … in-store product demonstration has the highest [sales] lift," says Giovanni DeMeo of Interactions, the company that runs Club Demonstration Services, Costco's go-to sample vendor. In fact, in 2014, "Interactions' beer samples at many national retailers on average boosted sales by 71 percent, and its samples of frozen pizza increased sales by 600 percent."

Some of this urge to buy is driven by reciprocity, Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University, told the publication. "Reciprocity is a very, very strong instinct," he explained. "If somebody does something for you, you really feel a rather surprisingly strong obligation to do something back for them." In other words, walking away empty-handed after you've stuffed seven free cheese samples in your mouth makes you feel like a bit of a schmuck, but purchasing that cheese appeases the guilt. 

There's a best time to score more samples

Knowing the best time of day, the best day of the week, and even the best times of the year to score Costco samples is key if eating an entire meal's worth of tiny bites of free food is your ultimate goal.

According to one Redditor who says he's a "Costco sample guy," the weekends are prime time for the most variety. "Saturdays and Sundays will always have the most. If you want unlimited amounts of samples and no lines go on a Monday or Tuesday but there are less to choose from. On the weekends go right around 1 or 2 because all shifts are out at that time."

Another Redditor, who claims to be a Costco employee, agrees that weekends are your best bet for maximum samples, but adds that you've got to get there before 5 p.m. when the vendors wrap up for the day (the stores close at 6 p.m). And one more piece of advice: "There are a ton of [sample workers] everywhere right before holidays that involve partying and eating." Good to know.

They create a big mess

If there's a downside to the Costco sample program, it's all those tiny containers and plastic forks that get served with each and every bite. Not only are food packaging waste and single-use plastics filling up the landfills, but it turns out they're also a nuisance in the stores, too.

Business Insider spoke to Costco employees about their biggest pet peeves, and customers who leave their sample waste wherever they please ranks high on the list. One store employee in Illinois said that they'd appreciate it if members stopped "eating a thousand samples and leaving their garbage everywhere." Another worker chimed in to agree, saying, "We have garbage bins at every sample station, along with at the end of a few aisles. Then there are garbage bins outside around the store. Yet sample cups end up sitting in the cart with leftover pieces, juice, and sauce in them. Very messy."

Come on, sample fanatics — the least you can do is clean up after yourself when you're eating free food. Just because you pay a membership fee doesn't mean the employees are your personal servants. 

Sample workers have to stay close to their carts

If your sample strategy involves waiting for the vendor to leave their cart so you can grab all the freebies for yourself without being judged, you're going to be waiting a long time. 

Mental Floss spoke with Skyler, a former Costco sample worker who explained that they are required to stay close to their stations — no more than 12 feet away — for safety reasons. "The 12-foot radius has to do with the fact that you're responsible for maintaining your station and keeping customers safe. If a kid sees an unattended station with a hot grill running and grabs a sample off of it and burns themselves, it's a liability," Skyler said. Another reason? Food safety. The demonstrators keep an eye out for customers who might touch food and put it back on the tray. If this happens, you can rest assured that those eagle-eyed sample vendors send it straight to the garbage.

There's no limit to how many you can take

We're all a little shy when it comes to grabbing a second (or fourth) sample, but it turns out that there's no reason to be bashful after all. According to CBS News, Costco's policy actually encourages its vendors to pass out an unlimited number of samples to customers. And the "Costco sample guy" agrees…

When asked on Reddit if the vendors were "technically allowed to give more than one sample to each customer," the sample guy responded, "Absolutely! You don't even need to ask. As long as you don't take an entire tray or take three when there's a crowd, you're more than welcome to take multiple samples." 

That doesn't really happen though, does it? Surely nobody would be bold enough to take an entire tray of samples for themselves… or would they? The vendor recalled an incident, saying, "Once I was giving out Ferrero Rocher and this 15-year-old took nine trays worth. That was 63 candies and about 50 bucks worth of product, right into his pockets." The kicker, according to the sample guy, is that there is nothing they can do about it.

Sample workers aren't allowed to sample on the job

You might think that as a Costco sample demonstrator, one of the perks of the job would be your unlimited access to whatever foods and drinks you happen to be serving. Unfortunately for them though, that's not the case. Apparently, sampling on the job could actually get you terminated.

When asked during his Reddit AMA if they ever eat the samples themselves, the "Costco sample guy" responded, "Oh of course but only when I'm on my break. At my store you can be fired for eating a sample while you're working." He further explained that even if they're preparing something like frozen burgers, they aren't allowed to do a taste test for quality assurance purposes, even if it's to ensure that the food isn't undercooked or overcooked. "I have to check every single one with a thermometer…," he said.

Another Redditor, who called herself a former "Costco sample lady," explained in more detail exactly when they're allowed to sample. "We're encouraged to do so before we set up so we can better sell the product… Just not when we work because that's unsanitary."

There's a height requirement

No, this isn't a roller coaster ride, but according to Jim, a former Costco sample demonstrator who spoke to Mental Floss, there is an "unofficial rule of thumb" when it comes to serving samples to children, and it all boils down to a height requirement. 

The former vendor who was stationed at California Costco locations explained that potential allergies can be a problem when it comes to handing out food to kids. As a way of combating this issue, the vendors assume that if the child is of a certain height, they should be able to see the sample and make the determination for themselves whether or not it's okay for them to eat it. "We can't really determine the age of a kid just by looking," he says. "They just need to be tall enough to see the sample and discern what it is." Let's hope that all those tall kids know exactly what they're allergic to.