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The Evolution of Try Before You Buy

September 22, 2021
September 22, 2021

Struck by a lack of distribution due to the temporary closure of physical retail spaces, and fueled by new packaging and experiential options, samples are inciting an industry overhaul. With 50% of all beauty shoppers buying a product after sampling, it’s certainly remained a useful retail initiative. While the desire for physical touch and product testing still outweigh virtual try-on options like ModiFace or Glamlab, these are finding traction within the industry due to their waste-free merits. Nonetheless, a strong appetite for offline experiences persists, with 80% of consumers craving in-store services. Where does this leave enterprises looking for solutions? BeautyMatter explores the main pillars of change supporting the future of sampling.

Sanitation and Hygiene

Many consumers are still wary of pre-COVID display options. A First Insight survey in July 2020 states that 80% of women don’t feel safe using in-store testers. Sampling on the mass-market level is proving to be the biggest challenge, with the horrors of dilapidated and unhygienic sampling options to contend with. Ellen Friedman, Executive Vice President at RPG, states: “There’s a huge level of frustration in the mass space. It all comes down to single dose sampling because you don't necessarily have people servicing the customer. It will be interesting to watch how these mass retailers continue to enhance this beauty customer experience.”

Amidst easing restrictions, retailers are still offering in-store tester models due to high client demand, albeit with single-use alternatives on the horizon. “Customers are demanding in-store testers, it will definitely continue to come back and just has to be done with more of a microscope in terms of hygiene,” digital start-up Odore co-founder, Armaan Mehta, said. Livcer’s “Livstick” is a blister pack-wrapped matchstick dipped in product, making for a one-time use of hot-pour products. Coty’s touchless fragrance testers allow shoppers to sample a drop of the fragrance on their skin. Sampling company Adhespack offers ticket dispenser-like in-store sampling options (the company expects a 50% turnover increase this year). Even for those sticking with traditional sachet formats, the incorporation of silver-based additives for lamination could provide added antibacterial benefits. As consumers are eager to leave their homes and experience beauty in-person, the desire to experiment will continue to rise.

“When it comes to beauty, people want to explore. The consumer is saying, ‘I want the testers back [because] the shopping experience is not the same for me if I'm not going to be able to try it. I don't need to be here unless you're giving me that sensory experience,’” Friedman comments. She cites that for a recent brand collaborator, in-store testers increased purchase by 36% year-over-year.

“Customers are demanding in-store testers, it will definitely continue to come back and just has to be done with more of a microscope in terms of hygiene.”
By Armaan Mehta, Co-Founder, Odore


The beauty industry alone generates 122 billion plastic sachets annually. The reveal of such eye-watering numbers has ignited the search for more eco-friendly alternatives. Brands such as Plus and Busy are providing single-use products in biodegradable form. For fragrance, Scentdown and Scentpad offer single-use, completely recyclable fragrance cushion and card application possibilities.

“Everybody wants to jump on the bandwagon and say, sampling is bad for the environment and we should get rid of it. I understand that, but I think that we always have to look at the bigger picture. Beauty tech is a great answer to that for some products but it's not the answer to just get rid of all testers and sampling,” Friedman says. Certainly, buying a full-size product and throwing it away because it doesn’t agree with your skin produces more waste than giving a sample sachet a go. In the context of sustainability, more targeted approaches can mean less discarded samples and more successful conversion rates.

Larry Berman, SVP of Sales for North America at Arcade Beauty, states that sustainability (alongside safety) is one of the biggest requests from clients, with solutions such as thermoformed technologies, post-consumer recycled materials, FSC certification, and LiquidTouch for fragrance sampling as available solutions.

Individually packaged samples and QR code-activated color matching provide a more hygienic alternative to in-store testers, although these models also bring with them more excess waste, but enterprises are looking at ways to give the plastic sachet a sustainability makeover. Youth To The People offers refillable minis in glass form. REN debuted a 100% recycled aluminum, reclosable sample tube, created in partnership with globally leading manufacturer Tubex. Aluminum specifically is infinitely recyclable, giving it an advantage over other materials. “While more costly, we are committed to using these new tubes to reduce plastic waste and hope to encourage other beauty brands to rethink their sample packaging with the planet in mind,” comments CEO Arnaud Meysselle.

In-store service also has a part to play. Glossier’s recent massive investment in their physical retail space, and the trademark “throw in the bag” samples that come with them, shows there is still a place for more fortuitous product findings. “When you have a retailer that you trust, and they're giving you new products to try … people are saying they want to be sustainable, but I still think they take the sample,” Friedman adds. Berman sees the waste-reducing merits of having a consultant shade-match clients in-store, thereby reducing the number of samples they need to take home.

“When you have a retailer that you trust, and they're giving you new products to try … people are saying they want to be sustainable, but I still think they take the sample.”
By Ellen Friedman, Executive Vice President, RPG

Using Technology to Drive Conversion and Close the ROI Loop

The biggest component in its evolution is harnessing its power for consumer insight and closing the ROI loop, an aspect which is still under construction, but has been aided immensely through the proliferation of beauty tech.

Historically, samples have been a rather randomized affair. Enterprises such as Odore are hoping to effectively strategize and streamline this process. “We don't believe sampling is a volumes game. It's about doing it in a more lean, targeted approach, and then you can see great results,” Mehta says. Via zero-party data collection, the company helps brands target customers more effectively while gathering useful data, further increasing efficiency possibilities in sample distribution, all integrated into various social media platforms and the client’s website. Odore advocates a seamless integration of sampling into other marketing strategies to drive conversion, with impressive results such as a 15-fold increase in sales revenue or 300% increase in online reviews. For customers who prefer in-store purchases, Odore advises pushing said avenue via complimentary consultations, or incorporating virtual consultations if they prefer shopping online.

Arcade Beauty’s use of the digital product sampling platform Abeo, which uses targeted social media ads as a way for consumer sampling, is another option. In their work with L’Oréal on their Infallible foundation, customers were offered free samples via social media, which were then sent to their homes, with follow up email campaigns, leading to 82% of users expressing intent to buy. The lack of traceable information of sampling practices has been one of the biggest factors in the difficulty of measuring its efficacy, making the resulting data from such campaigns not only helpful in terms of measuring success, but also in shaping future marketing ambitions.

Pandemic-induced measures like store closures and reduction in direct mail meant brands couldn’t rely on retailers to distribute their samples anymore, but Berman believes this newfound independence is putting the power back into brand owners’ hands. “Digital sampling, ​​e-commerce and digital is really where the growth is going to be,” he says. “The smarter the brands can get, the easier it's going to be to communicate with those customers.”

An indispensable tool at their disposal is finding their ideal target clients through data, examining factors such as expenditure, skin type, and purchasing history in order to better recommend products. “What we are really trying to focus on is identifying the upper echelon of customers, because that top 10% of customers are worth, on average, six times more than the other 90%. Nurturing those customers is going to be really valuable,” Mehta comments.

Data privacy may be a highly sensitive topic, but opting in could result in better product recommendations. Trackable QR codes on single-use samples could be another way to track follow-through, although given the gargantuan numbers of distributed products, it would be a Herculean task to trace every single one.

Whether consumers settle on in-store testers or single-use samples, reducing the carbon footprint of these options while increasing consumer safety remain paramount. If brands can also rise to the challenge of creating enticing versions of these that help convey a product narrative at the same time, the ROI cards are in their favor.


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