Weird Rules Costco Samplers Have To Follow

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly reported on details regarding Costco sampler rules regarding fees and employee protocol. Updated on 1/22/24.

With its cavernous warehouses used as retail sales spaces, lined with shelves from the floor to the very high ceiling stacked with pallets and gigantic boxes of bulk food and housewares, Costco can be a very intimidating place. A simple trip to buy food and home necessities in bulk can quickly turn overwhelming, but fortunately, there's another element to a Costco run, a reward for the chore on a very small counter compared to all of the very large things that surround: the samples. Hopping around from one sample station to another, patiently waiting in line and listening to a sales pitch to score a nibble of cheese, a bite of frozen confectionery, and a modest portion (or two) of a brand-new sweet or salty snack food makes a Costco trip worth it (if it's not consistently the best part of the excursion).

Behind every sample stand is a sample employee, and informing their job is a series of important rules, regulations, and informal encouragements. These guidelines make the workday flow better, move the merchandise, and ensure that sampling can continue as it has into the foreseeable future. Here's a look into the weird rules Costco sample workers should and must follow for every minute of every shift.

The samplers aren't Costco employees

At almost any given time, every Costco warehouse is swarming with people, be they giant cart-wielding customers or busy employees hauling or checking out merchandise. But likely the most popular folks in a Costco, or at least the ones who draw a crowd for hours on end, are the people running the food sampling stations. Armed with an apron and a toaster oven, they dole out bites of tasty products available right that very moment in Costco, along with a running spiel about the item's value and deliciousness. But despite the very on-brand work that encourages customers to spend more time and money at Costco, samplers work at the store chain, but not for the store chain. (So don't ask them to help you find something in Costco — that's not their responsibility.)

The legion of workers wearing big smiles and blue aprons are employed by Club Demonstration Services. It's not a division of Costco, but it's a business reliant entirely on Costco — it's the "in-house product demonstration service provider" for the warehouse chain, according to the CDS website. Its entire operation centers on sampling and showcasing Costco items inside Costco stores. It all started as a pilot project at 16 Costco outlets in the 1980s and has grown into the retailer's international partner in 13 countries. And while CDS works solely with Costco, the warehouse chain still charges the demo company a nominal fee.

They have to follow a plan

It's not really a rule, more of a system, but it's something that successful Club Demonstration Services samplers employ to make the most of their time on the Costco sales floor and move as much product as possible. According to a Mental Floss interview with a former sample worker named Jim, CDS encourages its employees to abide by "SITGA." That's an easy-to-remember acronym, in which each letter represents a different quality, skill, or technique — and the order in which they ought to be performed — to pull in shoppers. "SITGA" stands for "smile," "invite," "talk," "give sample," and "ask." Samplers are supposed to smile big enough so passing customers can see, and then verbally invite the Costco patron to try a sample. Once they've gently ensnared the customer, the sampler should talk about the product and explain its many unique and attractive qualities before they give a sample or hold out or motion to the tray of free food. Finally, they're directed to ask if the customer has any more questions about the product they're munching.

It's in a CDS employee's best financial interests to make "SITGA" work. Should they move a lot of stock of the sampled goods, they may receive a pay bonus above and beyond their hourly wage. Some samplers may earn a different reward: If they consistently sell out their store's supply of the items they've been tasked with sampling, they're offered extra shifts.

They have to sample the goods, but not here and not now

Neither sampler provider Club Demonstration Services nor Costco wants to put an uninformed employee on the sales floor. They don't want the tray holder offering up try-out servings of products with which they're unfamiliar with or that they can't stand behind. This means that samplers are strongly urged to sample for themselves the foods they're tasked with sampling, as well as whatever their fellow CDS workers are demonstrating, too.

"We're encouraged to do so before we set up so we can better sell the product," a former CDS worker explained on Reddit. However, they're supposed to eat those samples on their own time, like before their shift begins, or when they're not technically working. "On our 15-minute breaks we were allowed to go around and get samples from our co-workers," the CDS employee said. "Just not when we work because that's unsanitary." As for how strict this rule is, that's probably on a case-by-case basis, but nonetheless, snacking on samples during a shift is frowned upon. "At my store you can be fired for eating a sample while you're working," another CDS sampler told Reddit.

They must remain on standby (and they have to stand, too)

When assigned a particular sample station for a shift, that's a CDS demonstration employee's workplace for the day. As such, they're required to never wander too far away from that workstation for any reason. Scheduled breaks are there for workers to use the restroom, grab something to eat, or take care of other personal business. While they're on the clock, CDS workers are to travel a distance of no more than 12 feet away from their food station. "The 12-foot radius has to do with the fact that you're responsible for maintaining your station and keeping customers safe," an ex-sampler named Skyler told Mental Floss. "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." Having workers stay close to their stations likely prevents accidents and costly lawsuits.

Additionally, the closer a worker is to their stand, the tighter control they can have over the food on hand. If they were to leave their station, or lose sight of it, they wouldn't see anyone tampering with the food that was left out, or if they're touching or tasting it before putting it back, for instance.

A CDS worker's shift may last for six hours, with breaks spread throughout. Employees are generally expected to remain standing except for breaks, though a stool may be approved upon special request.

Leftovers are banned

Even with crowds of hungry and curious customers consistently approaching the sampling stations for the better part of a day, it's still possible that some of what the CDS workers cook, present, and offer might wind up in the trash at the end of their shift. A lack of foot traffic, consumer disinterest, failure to attract attention, or not many repeat samplers could mean that a CDS representative is left with extra ready-to-eat food. And so, Costco samplers must take major steps to avoid having to waste or discard perfectly good food.

As the conclusion of a shift approaches, a demo worker will change up their prep and sampling routine. "We'll usually make sure we're done cooking by a certain time so nothing is leftover," a CDS sampler named Jim told Mental Floss. If excess uncooked or prepared stock remains sealed in its packaging, it could wind up heading to a local food bank, but that's at the discretion of the management of each Costco store. And even if all these factors are observed and food remains out, hot, and ready to eat, CDS samplers still have to throw it away. It's against the rules to take home leftovers.

They change out their gloves nearly every five minutes

Even before sanitation and safety measures widely introduced in 2020 and 2021 to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the sample peddlers at Costco were required to adhere to strict standards of cleanliness. According to a purported CDS and Costco demonstration worker on Reddit, every shift as a sampler begins with making sure cooking gear and serving utensils have been freshly cleaned and sanitized. And if a customer touches anything on the sample station that they're not generally allowed to touch — utensils or food they didn't take with them, for example — the CDS representative is required to immediately send it to the trash or switch it out with something that hasn't been tainted. That anti-cross-contamination rule goes for the samplers, too. If they touch something outside of their station, or sample their own wares during a break, it's expected that they'll replace their gloves right away, according to a sample worker on Reddit.

The most frequently refreshed cleaning tool: gloves. "We change out gloves every five minutes," the CDS worker explained. The gloves are required to be made out of a non-latex product, and worn on both hands at all times. Along with the gloves come hairnets, required on a sampler-by-sampler basis. CDS employees must wear a white mesh cap that completely covers or tucks away all head hair, including bangs, as well as beards and mustaches. The one time the hairnets aren't required: When the sampler is working a demonstration of a non-edible product.

Samplers are supposed to be randomly assigned their products

Calling CDS workers "samplers" is an incomplete designation. They don't just offer bite-size pieces of Costco product for tasting, they demonstrate and pitch all kinds of products. A CDS employee may work a station touting microwavable snacks, ice cream, or soda one day, and the next, they may be called upon to introduce Costco members to pharmacy items, dietary supplements, appliances, and cleaning products.

CDS rolls out a variety of product samples with the help of its registrar of employees. Putting the right employee with the right product is key. Managers know their staff members very well, and they know who to put on what products to maximize impact and customer interest. According to a Costco sampler on Reddit, for example, older employees are generally given cleaning products to demonstrate, while the bubbliest and most energetic demo workers get assigned things like sweets and baked goods. The reason: Those are far and away the busiest sample stations, and such employees can handle dealing with the consistently high demand over an entire shift.

Samplers have to be government- and Costco-approved

The samplers at Costco don't work for Costco, but rather for Club Demonstration Services. As such, that is a company in the primary business of preparing and serving food to the general public. Even though they don't charge customers for their wares, they're still classified as food service workers and must be properly registered with their jurisdiction's health departments. In many states and counties, that means CDS employees can't hit the Costco warehouse floor to sample an edible product if they didn't register for and receive a government-issued food handler's card.

Adjacent to that law, CDS demonstrators are technically required to have their food handler's card on their person during a shift at Costco. Beyond that legal mandate, CDS and Costco require additional, similar documentation in the form of a Costco Food Certificate. It's a Costco-specific food handlers' card, issued after the successful passing of a test at a Costco warehouse. That card must also be in the possession of a demo worker whenever they're sampling food at Costco.

They can't hand you a sample, even in a paper cup

The whole transactional nature of sampling may seem very casual and informal, but that's just a function of good customer service. Those CDS workers demoing food products at Costco want those who approach to feel comfortable enough to chat, listen, and enjoy a free sample. Underneath that interaction is a very specific routine that's standard operating procedure, a very specific protocol of distributing samples to an individual, all done with cleanliness and safety in mind.

The sampler is not allowed to directly hand over a bite of the food on display to a customer — not even with their gloved hands or even when the edible product is placed inside a small plastic or paper cup. The sampler must steadfastly abide by the rules, which involve a beat and an extra step. After cooking, and then cutting the food down to a small size, if necessary, the sampler places the morsel in a little disposable container. Then they set it down on a tray. The customer is then directed to take that cup off of the tray. The CDS sampler may gesture or verbally indicate that it's fine for the customer to help themselves by grabbing a cup, but under no circumstances are they to directly pass the food from their hand to the customer's.

They don't have to, and probably won't, limit the samples

One rule for Costco in-store sampling that affects people on both sides of the station: There's no set limit to how many free tastes one person can take. "You don't even need to ask," a Costco sampler told Reddit. What governs the sample station is a mix of politeness, courtesy, and common sense which varies from customer to customer. The demo workers have their own moral guidelines that they follow when deciding if someone has taken more than their fair share. "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," the employee said on Reddit. According to Mental Floss, consumer psychology factors in. Some Costco members who find themselves wanting one too many extra samples may give in to the feelings of shame and wind up buying the product on demonstration.

Not only will a CDS employee probably not tell a Costco customer that they've enjoyed more than enough free samples, they can't. Such a shopper is a Costco member, and the sample workers must oblige their whims. The hierarchy is as follows: customer, store management, CDS. If a customer misbehaves, like in an unclean or dangerous fashion at a sample stand, CDS workers can't throw the customer out of the area or the warehouse. "Only the store manager has the power to ask you to leave," a demo worker said on Reddit.

Kids can't sample products unless parents around

While the demonstrators operating the sample stands must abide by a certain set of guidelines, their employer, CDS, doesn't provide many regulations that pertain to customer behavior. The biggest consideration that Costco demo workers have to think about when letting people serve themselves has to do with children. If minors approach the sample stand without a parent or guardian present, samplers are left to use their judgment if they want to let the solo kid partake or not — as they could be allergic to something in the food. In theory, young children may not be as cogent of that danger as a parent would be.

A sampler named Jim told Mental Floss that demo workers use height as a rough estimation. "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." This estimation, however, is not an official company policy. According to a CDS representative, kids under 12 still need to be accompanied by a parent when grabbing samples.