Though New York City enters its widest reopening plans this week, beauty retailers have been taking their time to resume business as usual. Instead of free-flowing foot traffic, curbside pick-up, often used for product replenishment, has been prioritized. This leaves little room for beauty trial and discovery.

Because of this, the pressure for companies to figure out their digital sampling programs is greater than ever. In-store beauty testers are gone for the foreseeable future, and brands are experiencing an increase in online traffic, often times with sales attached. At the same time, 58% of shoppers say that not being able to try products digitally stops them from purchasing online.

According to sample packaging and manufacturing company Arcade Beauty, inquiries for new projects are up 30% year-over-year, said Allie Sorensen, vp of digital sales and marketing. Arcade Beauty’s 400-plus client list includes Shiseido, LVMH, Pat McGrath Labs and Glossier, to name a few. Sorenson estimated that, on any given day Arcade Beauty is behind 80% of all the samples found on

Kirsten Kjaer Weis, founder of luxury organic beauty line Kjaer Weis, has been offering online samples of her products for six years. She said it was a means for customers who couldn’t make it to wholesale doors, like Bluemercury, Neiman Marcus and The Detox Market, to try her skin-care and makeup.

“In certain parts of the country, we don’t have have the retail doors for customers to be able to access and try on our products, and the thing about color is you want to try it on, especially foundation. It’s a service we believe in, and it’s just a nice experience for the customer,” said Kjaer Weis. She added that beyond color payoff she wants shoppers to “feel and experience the performance of organic makeup.”

Kjaer Weis does not work with an outside sampling company like Arcade Beauty. Instead, interns pour all samples and label them, and there is not a customer cost associated with ordering samples, said Kjaer Weis. Despite not actively marketing the sampling offering — it’s found on the customer service section of its e-commerce site and has selectively been promoted along with the brand’s Beauty Advisor virtual consultation service on Instagram — Kjaer Weis reported a 10x higher conversion rate among online shoppers who receive a sample.

“Sending out a foundation that is wrong for the customer serves no one. The customer is unhappy and, as a business, we take back a full product that we can’t use again. So sending out samples on key products is worth it,” said Kjaer Weis.

While creating samples for every product can be expensive (for instance, Kjaer Weis has 22 products and certain items have up to 16 shades), Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of creative beauty agency Base Beauty, said brands should emphasize samples for top-performing SKUs. “Best-sellers have demonstrated they deserve the investment,” she said.

Katz estimated that sampling programs for global strategic companies could cost in the millions for a single product. Thus, shades needs to be consistent across collections, even if various finishes (like matte, semi-matte or tinted) and coverage (sheer, medium, full) exist. Though Kjaer Weis doesn’t have hard and fast rules for its digital sampling programs, the brand estimates that it sends up to five to six samples per product, when requested.

Some beauty brands have landed on putting the cost of sampling back on the customer, for now. Victorialand Beauty, an all-natural indie skin-care brand, offers a sample bundle of four products for $10, or free with a purchase of $50 or more. Free shipping is available on all orders, and like Kjaer Weis, samples are developed in-house.

In the fragrance world, this has become an especially common tactic. Luxury brand The Harmonist offers free samples within third-party stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus (both of which it partnered with just prior to Covid-19), as well as in its owned boutiques in Paris and Los Angeles. With the onset of coronavirus globally, the brand lowered its online sampling cost from $18 to $6, said CEO Samantha Fink.

“Our No. 1 priority is brand awareness and client reach right now. We know our price point can inhibit some first-time customers from buying, but once customers experience the brand, they fall in love,” said Fink. Most Harmonist fragrances retail from $225-$305, but in its boutiques the company has seen 60% of customers who take advantage of samples convert to full-size product.

While increasing brand awareness is a top-of-the-funnel marketing tactic, Sorenson stressed that beauty companies need to be more specific and targeted with their digital sampling initiatives.

“Sampling must be a strategic part of brands’ new approach to marketing, For now, brands own the cost of samples even for retailers, so offering a wide suite of products in all shades without knowing what the goal is isn’t cost-effective,” Sorenson said.

And that doesn’t even begin to address the waste problem that widespread sampling poses, which sustainable beauty brands simply can’t get behind.

About 18 months ago, Arcade Beauty launched a digital sampling platform called Abeo for its beauty partners, which attempts to solve both cost and waste problem. It also saves brands from flooding their e-commerce site with samples and under- or overestimating samples needed. Abeo is targeted at a specific audiences (like Gen-Z and younger millennials); capped at a sample size number; and promoted through social media platforms using a unique coupon. Customers have to answer a series of questions from a quiz (no more than four) to get samples sent to them. Thus far, Abeo has a 73% opt-in rate among shoppers, who are sent an advised shade, as well as formulations one shade darker and one shade lighter.

“Scent strips and direct mail can be incredibly cost-effective and lead to huge conversion, but if you don’t have the contacts and don’t feel good about the waste, this can be the next best thing digitally. It still tells a story,” said Sorenson.

Faith Popcorn, futurist and CEO of marketing consulting firm BrainReserve, agreed. “The beauty counter is done. The person behind the counter doesn’t decide anymore how you shop, the customer does. So figure out how to serve her well online.”