5 Things Costco Doesn't Tell You About Free Samples

A day at Costco can mean so many things: eating a $1 hot dog lunch, navigating a tank-sized shopping cart, and perhaps best of all, trying out dozens of free food samples. Plenty of stores offer samples, but few have such a devoted fanbase as Costco. After all, who doesn't love free stuff, especially when you're running on empty after navigating a maze of aisles for an hour or more?

Free samples — and interacting with the wonderful folks who prepare and serve them — is so much a core part of the Costco shopping experience that when the chain started utilizing automated, serve-yourself sample containers, cardholders were deeply upset. Given that free samples are pretty much synonymous with Costco, you may not give them much thought when making your rounds. But there's plenty that folks don't know about these fan-favorite samples — and plenty that the chain doesn't tell you. Here are five untold realities of Costco's free samples.

1. The sample distributors don't actually work for Costco

A 2018 survey by Comparably named Costco as the employer with the best company culture. Employees of the grocery store receive benefits, competitive wages, and opportunities for internal promotion. Sadly, even though the sample distributors are pretty much everyone's favorite workers at the big-box chain, they aren't actually employed by Costco.

All sample distributors and demonstrators are independently employed by a group called Club Demonstration Services (CDS). This role has many drawbacks, like limited part-time employment, no access to benefits such as healthcare or a 401K, and paltry wages compared to full-time Costco employees. Since samples are one of the biggest draws for Costco shoppers, make sure you're always polite to these demonstrators — listen to what they have to say, and of course, always say thank you.

Because the demonstrators aren't employees of the store, don't be surprised if they don't know where to find specific items. Costco frequently changes its layout, making it impossible for these vendors to memorize the store's organization. if you need help navigating the Costco labyrinth, look for a full-time employee.

2. Companies request to have their product sampled

When you're shopping in Costco and receive a delicious free sample, like Costco's deli chicken salad on a fresh-baked pretzel roll or a perfectly spiced piece of salami, you may wonder what food scientist made such tasty selections for you. In truth, the decision-maker is rarely Costco itself, according to one self-proclaimed CDS employee who commented on a Reddit thread about the topic. Instead, CDS typically receives requests from individual companies who want to have their product displayed and offered as a sample. Occasionally, Costco will push its own products on the vendors, but this is less frequent.

This is also why you may sometimes receive a food sample that simply doesn't taste good or seems like a strange choice. Costco may be having difficulty moving a new product, it may need to clear room for new offerings coming from the warehouse, or a supplier may want people to try its product that's struggling to find footing. So, while free samples are always nice, they're usually curated less for customers' enjoyment than they are to create a sales boost.

3. You can eat as much as you want

If you've ever sheepishly re-approached a sample table hoping for a second (or third) bite, or if you've made your shopping buddy loop back around so you remain inconspicuous, there's really no need. Demonstrators don't mind if you come back for several samples, especially if you're polite and don't just snatch the samples up like you're hogging them for later. In fact, one sample distributor claimed in a Reddit thread that they love seeing folks enjoy a product, and they don't mind engaging in a bit of polite banter.

That said, there are a few etiquette rules to follow. Don't scoop up a whole tray's worth of samples — just take one or two at a time, and don't camp out at the sample table. Demonstrators are there to move products, and you lingering at their station makes it difficult for them to interact with other eager samplers. For this same reason, make sure the demonstrator has plenty of samples to go around if you're coming back for seconds; otherwise, your fellow shoppers won't have a chance to try the product until a new set is prepared, which may take some time.

4. Free samples make Costco a lot of money

Sometimes, the abundance of samples at Costco combined with its all-you-can-eat sample policy and the presence of piecemeal lunch hunters may make you wonder why the chain would just give its products away — surely that can't be good business practice, right? Wrong. Even though these food samples are free to customers, they're major money-makers for the big-box chain.

For one thing, if you try a sample and fall in love, you're already in the right place to buy a whole flat. Plus, by the time you're done bulk shopping, one impulse buy feels minor when your shopping cart has enough toilet paper to last you a year. Data from another grocery chain, Marsh Supermarkets, indicates that free samples can boost sales by as much as 2,000% (via Supermarket News), so realistically, those second and third pizza rolls you snagged aren't making any dent in Costco's profits.

Also important to note is that Costco is a members-only wholesaler. So, even if you score the equivalent of a free lunch through samples, your annual membership fee is the real cost of admission. That's one of the reasons Costco can have such cheap food court items — and why free samples aren't actually as "free" as you might think.

5. Time your visits for maximum samples

Some people out there are truly devoted to getting the most out of their Costco free samples. If you're one of these, you should know that CDS sends more vendors during the weekend because that's when most households do their grocery shopping. As you can probably guess, more vendors equal more samples. That said, hitting up Costco on these peak sample days may turn out to be fruitless because of the increased traffic. Navigating the aisles can already be a nightmare, but the massive lines for each sample often take the pleasure out of the whole experience.

According to one sample distributor commenting on a Reddit thread, however, Saturdays are significantly less busy than Sundays, so aim to do your sample hunting early in the weekend. If you prefer having the Costco to yourself, weekdays aren't nearly as busy, but there will likely be fewer samples available.

What time of day you visit also determines how many samples are out for tasting, according to another Costco sample distributor on an Ask Me Anything Reddit thread. They asserted that anywhere between 1 and 2 p.m. is the sweet spot for samples. Even so, there's no limit to how much product the demonstrators can give out during their shift, so don't worry about them running out of inventory.