How Many Free Samples Are Too Many?

The best among us have been there:

It's late on a weekday afternoon. Due to work commitments or travel arrangements or some other distraction, you haven't eaten in far too long. Your blood sugar's running low, and you have nothing left in the fridge, so you mosey on over to the grocery store and start loading up the cart. But as you do, you realize how much longer you have to wait until the grumble in your stomach is quenched. You still need to finish up shopping, and then check out, and then load up the car, and then drive back home, and then unload the car, and only then can you start putting an end to your hunger pangs.

But while strolling the grocery store aisles, you see something wonderful, something utterly magical, an oasis of clear water in a vast desert. You see a table with a few small portions of food, along with the greatest sign you've ever seen in your life: "Free samples."

So you take one. And then another. And maybe you tool around the store for a bit before finding yourself back at -- well, would you look at this! -- the same exact aisle with the free samples. Thinking the person working the table won't recognize you (spoiler: they will) you take a third sample. And maybe even a fourth. And the internal question begins haunting you:

How many samples are too many?

It's an ethical question with no concrete answer. One sample is, of course, perfectly fine. Two samples wouldn't normally be given a second look. And while three, four, five samples might be considered over the top, at an ice cream parlor that kind of thing is the norm. So, in the right environment, the only rigid limits to sampling are those that are self-instituted.

At least, that's how it used to be. In New York, they may have an answer for what's considered over-excessive free-sampling:

Former laboratory machinist Erwin Lingitz moseyed on into a Cub Foods in White Bear Township on April 24, 2010 and proceeded to fill a plastic produce bag with summer sausage. His total haul, gleaned from displays and unattended stations set up throughout the aisles, included 14-16 packets of soy sauce, 0.61 pounds of summer sausage in a plastic produce bag
, and 0.85 pounds of beef stick.

The story got newsworthy following the sample heist, when the 68-year-old Lingitz was arrested by police, thrown on the sidewalk and "kicked in the head and ribs." Lingitz is, thusly, suing for $375,000 in damages, contending he took that vast amount because store personnel constantly told him to take as much as he wanted. The grocery store's legal department, on the other hand, is painting him as a serial sample hogger. The facts of this case notwithstanding -- this seems like an instance where everyone's a little wrong -- the whole case raises the question: How do grocery stores handle customers who take more free samples than they should?

To answer the question, I called a few Trader Joe's locations, a Vons, a Ralphs and some local independent stores throughout the city. The response was a combination of "nope, never heard anything like that before" to a general wariness of the media, pointing me towards some PR person who, certainly, wouldn't offer any worthwhile juicy gossip. So instead, to get an enlightening perspective about the samples industry, I turned to one of the people I trust most in my world: My mother.

(Let it be known, for the record, I'm not just getting a quote from her because she's a lovely, funny person, even though she is. But because back in the early '90s, she worked for Samples & Surveys, a company that would line grocery stores with trays of free samples. Her job included cooking up the food, providing them to the public, and answering any questions the consumers might have, all with a smile. As such, she has plenty of experience dealing with folks who'd take more than just a sample.)

Says Mom, "Most people were polite, but some would just come out for lunch. They'd pretend like they were interested in it, but I knew they weren't, so when they would keep hogging samples I would stop serving it and just talk to them about it. And once there was nothing to eat, they would leave. And then if they wouldn't go, I would tell them, 'Well, if you like it so much, why don't you buy it?'"

And while this method of just ceasing to make new samples until the sample hoggers move along may not have worked in the aforementioned New York case, it's certainly a lot closer to the correct answer than having cops jump, kick, and beat them up on the sidewalk. At least, it's the answer that saves people from a costly lawsuit.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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