This is part of a special package from Glossy about what comes next, looking to the other side of the current crisis to explore the lasting changes that are coming about.

Since Covid-19 swept the U.S., a visit to any reopened beauty store has become quite the sterile experience. At Ulta, in-store product testers are affixed to displays in open locations and feature instructions in all caps that read, “For display only, please do not touch.” Elsewhere, clean beauty retailer Credo has not yet opened its nine doors for in-store shopping, opting to offer curbside pick-up only. And the fragrance spritzes notoriously found in luxury department stores are long gone.

The above retailers, as well as Sephora, are prioritizing health and safety guidelines as the global pandemic continues to surge. But what gets lost in the shuffle is a consumer-centric shopping experience that is fun and full of product discovery. With in-store testers becoming a relic in the new normal, beauty brands and retailers are in search of creative ways to get products — especially new launches – into customers’ hands. Since the health crisis began, the pressure has been put on product sampling.

There is no question that, in beauty, sampling works. Beauty samples are the third-largest driver of full-size product purchases, according to market research firm Euromonitor International. And because of fragmented store openings followed by closings, and the lack of opportunities for product trials, the minis market, which accounts for deluxe and travel-size samples, is expected to grow. In 2019, it clocked in at $1.3 billion in retail sales in the U.S, up 5% from the year prior, according to NPD group.

At the beauty counter, samples are often free for the customer. Case in point: Luxury fragrance brand The Harmonist offers free samples within Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, as well as within its two standalone boutiques in Paris and Los Angeles. Harmonist fragrances range from $225-$305, and in its boutiques, 60% of customers who take advantage of samples convert to full-size product,” said CEO Samantha Fink. Online, TheHarmonist.com sells individual fragrance samples for $6 to account for production and shipping.

While in-store samples are free for shoppers, the cost for beauty brands can be significant. Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of creative beauty agency Base Beauty, estimated that sampling for global strategic conglomerates could cost in the millions for a single product. Industry sources said sampling programs start at $25,000 for a single product SKU.

Like in-store brand field teams, the cost of samples have always been owned by brand partners, said Allie Sorensen, vp of digital sales and marketing at sample packaging and manufacturing company Arcade Beauty. While new project inquiries for Arcade Beauty are up 30% year-over-year, Sorensen said the question of whether retailers should split the difference on samples with brands “has not been discussed.” Arcade Beauty’s 400-plus client list includes Shiseido, LVMH, Pat McGrath Labs and Chanel; Sorenson estimated that Arcade Beauty is behind 80% of all the samples found on Sephora.com. Arcade Beauty would not share its sampling pricing for brand partners, only saying it “can work with any budget.” 

While single-use samples can be less expensive than deluxe samples, which feel more luxe or special because of packaging and size, Katz emphasized that beauty brands shouldn’t skimp out on the marketing tactic as it clearly drives conversion.

“For some people, buying foundation is like buying a bra; it’s a dreaded experience. A dinky packet of foundation isn’t going to make shopping for that any better, so brands and retailers need to think, ‘How do I tell a story through sampling?’ ‘What is it that’s going to get that customer excited to come back for more,’” she said. 

Other companies, like retail design and manufacturing firm RPG, are more bullish on single dose samples. RPG is in the throes of creating low-touch dispensers that can be attached onto a beauty counter or in-store gondola, and will allow consumers to take single-dose samples at their own discretion. Additionally, the company is at work on single-use testing palettes that retail associates can use to hygienically mix products for shoppers.

But some experiments don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Creating a bar-like hub in beauty retail stores a la Estée Lauder Companies’ defunct Prescriptives brand is one option, except in a 2020 version customers could order samples via their Sephora or Ulta app, Katz said. Additionally, levers like magazine tear-outs featuring foundation, as well as lipstick and scent strips could become popular again.

“What’s old is new again,” said Katz. “Maybe people aren’t buying magazines in the same way, but if testers are going away, how do you look at, touch, feel and experience a product? Direct mail could be a new version of that, and brands could still tell a compelling story.”