7 Facts You Need To Master About Costco's Free Samples

Costco is all about extremes. It's a special place that celebrates all that which is large and voluminous — each location a giant warehouse filled with crates, cases, and pallets of housewares and food that can only be purchased in mass quantities. Also big at Costco is the list of customer benefits, with one of the most famous, popular, and tastiest being the free samples. Yes, as Costco members steer their flatbed or gigantic carts around the aisles of their cavernous local store, they'll encounter at least a few sample stations, where friendly, apron-wearing workers will dole out a tiny bite of this, or a little cup of that. Amidst the hugeness of Costco comes this tiny but delightful bonus.

A person can make a meal and a game out of filling up on Costco samples, and there's a whole system in place to keep that operation humming. Here's everything you need to know about the world of Costco's free samples.

1. Costco samplers don't work for Costco

Costco samplers are part of the well-populated constantly and efficiently moving army of workers that make their warehouse outlet run. And yet they technically don't work for Costco. Samplers are officially employed by and receive their paychecks from a company called Club Demonstration Services, a separate and independent firm whose sole line of business is an in-store sampling of food products and conducting product demos for Costco.

Since they don't work for Costco (and must remain within a few feet of their assigned workstation at all times), CDS samplers won't necessarily know the answers to customer questions or even be able to help. They're tasked with sampling products, and following a CDS plan for success called "SITGA," according to Mental Floss: "Smile, Invite, Talk, Give Sample, and Ask." Successful sampling done in this matter can be financially beneficial. According to Indeed, CDS workers earn an average of $15 an hour, but can claim a bonus if they encourage enough sales of the product they're sampling.

2. The samplers sample the samples, but not while sampling

With all that free food hot and ready and spread out for the taking, Costco sample workers want customers to indulge and try a taste or two. The strictest rules as to who may take a sample and who may not actually relate to the sample workers themselves. According to a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" conducted by a self-proclaimed "Costco Sample Guy," sample workers are discouraged from eating samples while they're on the clock, actively handing out food to Costco customers. The policy varies by store, but the Costco where he worked considered eating while on the job a termination-level offense. However, it was totally fine for samplers to sample their food, or those of others, while they were on a work break. According to another Costco sampler's Reddit "Ask Me Anything," the demo staff is encouraged to try out whatever they're promoting. It's considered less than hygienic to eat the food during a shift, so they're asked to familiarize themselves with the products before their shift starts, and before they set up their stations.

Demonstrators are barred from taking home any leftovers at the end of their shifts. According to Mental Floss, the samplers try to not cook too much of their product so there isn't any left when the day is done. This cuts down on food waste, too — any prepared and unused food must be thrown away.

3. Some times are better than others to hit up the Costco sample stands

The sampling stations are up and running on virtually every day of the week and at any time one might visit any Costco warehouse store, not including just after opening and just before closing, because the demonstration employees haven't yet set up their equipment or are taking it down, respectively. Some time periods are better than others to go on a Costco sample crawl. Per a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" with a Costco-based sample worker, demonstrators operate from about 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, and until 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Because Costco stores are less busy during the week than they are on weekends, those are the times when there are the fewest lines and competition among other customers for free food. The deadest a Costco is ever going to get is reportedly on a Monday or Tuesday.

According to another sample worker on Reddit, there are more stations running on Saturdays and Sundays (and in the lead-up to major holidays), but also more people in the stores with which to contend. In that instance, 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. is the peak sampling time, with every scheduled sampling stand fully operational by that point.

4. If you're tall enough, help yourself

The free samples on offer at stands set up around the average Costco at any given time are open to everyone — presumably Costco members. And while the food samplers operate on anyone's welcome to as much as they want (within reason) policy, they do have to follow one unofficial dictum with regards to who can freely grab a free bite of food or two. Costco sample workers have to be careful and use their best judgment when children approach their stands and carts, and it's a health and safety issue. 

A former California-based Costco sample worker named Jim told Mental Floss that the rule for letting unaccompanied or unattended children take a sample has to do with height — if they're tall enough to clearly see what's being cooked and sampled, then they're free to enjoy. Too short, and the sampler might refuse. Height is equated with age in this situation, and age with a sense of maturity and responsibility. By the time they're tall enough to help themselves, Jim explained, they're probably old enough to know about their own food allergies and sensitivities, and what ingredients to avoid at sampling stations.

5. The coronavirus fundamentally changed Costco samples

As part of the vast, nationwide, often government-mandated efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus in the early days of the pandemic in March 2020, Costco temporarily and indefinitely shut down a couple of its most customer-beloved and tastiest features. First, to discourage loitering, they got rid of seating around the food court, moved to a takeout-only model, and discontinued all entrees except for pizza and hot dogs, according to CNN. The warehouse store giant also disallowed food sampling to slow the spread of germs by eliminating personal conduct, leaving Club Demonstration Services workers with nothing to do.

It took more than a year for COVID-19 transmission numbers to drop to a point where Costco felt it was safe to resume sampling in its stores. The store brought back samples at about 170 stores in June 2021, with the remainder of locations gradually following suit in the weeks following. It wasn't exactly back to normal, or with pre-pandemic operations, however. Costco enacted safety protocols to protect CDS workers and customers, ordering food to be prepared behind a layer of plexiglass, and in smaller batches, and to be handed out to customers one at a time, discouraging the formation of crowds around the sample stations.

Prior to the pandemic, Costco samplers already operated under strict hygiene guidelines. According to a worker's Reddit "Ask Me Anything," equipment was routinely sanitized and employees were required to change their latex gloves every five minutes.

6. Sampling is extremely good for business

The whole point of hiring a large company to sample foods and other products in their stores is to increase sales of those items. That's why manufacturers team up with Costco and Club Demonstration Services to get their stuff into the hands and mouths of thousands of potential customers via bustling sample stations. It's been a part of the Costco landscape for years, and if it didn't work, the retailer probably would have shut it all down. But sampling does work — very well, in fact.

"When we compare it to other in-store mediums, in-store product demonstration has the highest life," CDS executive Giovanni DeMeo told The Atlantic, regarding how samples directly boost sales. Not only does a product experience an immediate uptick — Costco customers taste the product and then put a box of it in their carts — but it encourages brand loyalty over time. CDS-led sampling led to an average sales spike of 71% for one beer company, and a boost of 600% for a frozen pizza brand.

7. Customers have fought over Costco samples

Costco customers are passionate about those free samples, so much so that it can lead to a swift breakdown in civility. Hundreds of Costco stores routinely dole out the free samples every day, and so it's very rare when chaos surrounding the sample stations ensues, but fights have broken out on at least two occasions in recent years.

One Sunday in September 2015, according to the Los Angeles Times, 24-year-old Derrick Gharabighi approached a sample station in the Burbank, California, Costco to try a bite of Nutella waffles. Then 78-year-old Sahak Sahakian also tried to take a sample at the same time, prompting Gharabighi to take all of the Nutella waffles on display. Sahakian objected to Gharbighi's move and told him as much. Ghaarbighi then escalated the situation immensely by punching Sahakian in the face. He required hospitalization to treat a cut and swelling above his eye, while Gharabighi was arrested and charged with elder abuse.

In July 2016 at a Costco in Greenville, South Carolina (according to the Washington Post), a 70-year-old customer got in line at a cheese sampling cart. As he waited, he spotted a 72-year-old customer (names were withheld from news reports) skip the line, take some cheese, and move on. The same thing happened at a cheeseburger sampling station, with the 70-year-old man waiting his turn and the 72-year-old cutting. Upon confrontation, 72 was unapologetic, 70 insulted him, and a brief scuffle ensued, leading Costco personnel to call police.