Sampling Returns Following Covid-19 Disruptions as Brands Look to Connect with Consumers [Interview]


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As Canadians are coming out of Covid-19, sampling has been on the rise and does not appear to be slowing down as more brands are wanting to increase brand awareness and connect with consumers. Jessica Lemire, the Director of Marketing Activations and Event Sponsorship at Osmington (Toronto Union Station), has noticed the rise in brand sampling and discusses why it is a great marketing tool for businesses. 

“I am confident that we will see an increase in sampling in the coming year based on the trends that we are observing at Union specifically and around Toronto. CPG brands and emerging businesses are launching new skus and products every single day, and they are all fighting for visibility and in-store purchases. During Covid, there was a huge decrease in sampling, but now that people are back at work and commuting again, brands want to get out there and target people in unique settings,” says Lemire. 

Sampling is the Key 

Toronto Union (Image: Dustin Fuhs)

Lemire said if brands are just starting out, sampling is key because it increases visibility, raises awareness, and creates a connection with consumers if done properly. Lemire suggests not only giving out a sample, but also to make an impression by telling the brand story, providing a coupon with the sample, a QR code where consumers can read more online – this way, you are not just handing out a sample, you are also connecting one on one. 

“The story behind the brand is really important and sometimes gets lost through social media. Brands may not be able to fully convey their story through other means, or communicate key points on what differentiates them, but sampling can achieve that in a distinctive way.” 

While brands are giving out samples, they should also have key talking points such as a quick
“made in Canada”, “locally made in Barrie”, or “this product has organic packaging”. Especially in Toronto’s Union Station, people may not have time to talk for an extended period, so having this key messaging communicated while passing the sample over is important and makes it easy for the consumer to remember later on. 

Right Time and Place 

At the Union Samples kiosks at Union Station, Lemire says they get a variety of different products such as swag, cookies, drinks, chocolates, and snacks – but says everything can be successful if given at the right time and the right place. 

“I think being successful has to do with giving out samples at the right time and the right place at Union. For example, on Monday morning people are starting out fresh so they are looking for healthy alternatives and a little something that will give them a boost, so anything on the healthy side will do well on a Monday morning. But on a Friday afternoon, it may not be the best fit for what visitors are craving.” 

Aligning samples to a day is extremely important as it is not just about what samples you are giving out, but how and when. Lemire says on Fridays, it is better to give out samples to lead people into the weekend such as wine tasting, whisky tasting, chips, chocolates – anything people would want when going into ”weekend mode” or that would be top-of-mind. “This also applies to non-CPG brands that are looking to promote their services, like ride-share apps or even restaurants that might want to boost weekend attendance.” Says Lemire. 

“Days of Significance can include Earth Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and even lesser-known days, like National Potato Chip Day”.  In addition, it’s important to consider the time of the day, day of the week, and also the season. If a brand is sampling alcohol during dry January – the success rate may not be as high, but if you give the same sample a few months later when people are heading into summer, it will align with people’s mindset and offer a better ROI.  

“You can hand out 20 thousand samples in a day in Toronto, and half of them might remember what the product is about, they might even remember some of the key talking points – but if you do it properly, at the right place, right time, with the right messaging behind it, then that’s what takes your campaign from a good campaign to a highly successful one. The positive association that consumers have with a brand that targeted them with a strategic and logical approach will be much higher than someone throwing samples at you for the sake of distributing their stock.  

I have been at Union for six and a half years and this is a trend we have noticed, so we try to align samples with certain days and times, while keeping the consumers in mind first-and-foremost and aligning that with a brand’s objectives.” 

Taking it Home 

Nibbl. (Saputo Inc.) at Toronto Union

Since Covid, Lemire has also noticed a change in sampling techniques compared to her first few years at Union. Instead of samples you must consume right away- such as a single serving of cheese or a small glass of a drink – brands are now giving out packaged samples that you can take on the go. 

“Many brands have switched to a packaged sample so people can enjoy on their own time and avoid being rushed to try it right away. If you are handed an open sample, you may not take your time to experience it,  but when someone hands me a full can, I can come back and sit at my desk and try it where I can truly enjoy it, experiencing it on my own time while keeping in mind the talking points they gave me earlier. It’s not the case for all samples and brands, but we’ve definitely noticed that full size samples seem to be the trend this year. On the other hand, it can be efficient to hand out an open sample when the goal is to gather feedback, live reactions and describe the ingredients and flavours that product might have as people are trying them.” 

Full size packaging, such as chocolate bars or bags of chips, are something Lemire has noticed as an emerging trend. “By giving out the entire product, you can even gain a few impressions by having people share it with others, showcase it to colleagues, or have the packaging make a presence at home. The single impression that you made while distributing the product might end up with a wider reach.” 

Currently Canadians, along with other parts of the world, are dealing with inflation. By not rushing consumers to try it on site, it also allows them to try it, think about it, look at the packaging so they can make an informed decision whether to buy the product at the store. 

“Inflation is real and people are trying to watch their spending, but we’ve also found that people want to treat themselves, so when you have brands that are sampling something that is a bit of a delight/luxury, you immediately make that positive association between the brand and a moment for yourself. They know their money will be well spent as they have already tried it, they know exactly which one to buy, and they have an existing mindset about the brand and the moment they shared with them”.  

Successful Sample Examples 


Lemire said that last month, Lush provided samples at Union for the first time and they were one of the most popular samplings they have had this year so far. They ran out of samples a few hours early and kept getting asked when they would be returning.  

As Lush already gives out free samples in store, they wanted to expand this concept to Union to save people time and expands their reach as not everybody has time to go to Lush to get a free sample. Lush provided everyone with a sample which included a face mask, body scrub, and a hand cream, which was aligned with what commuters need during the winter. 

David’s Tea 

Davids Tea at Toronto Union (Image: Toronto Union)

“DAVIDsTEA has sampled with us a few times and it truly is a great example of a brand that is sampling at the right place and right time. They have partnered with us during the holiday by giving out an offer, which is great timing as people are looking for gifts, paired with a full cup of tea, which was a welcomed surprise in the cold Toronto weather!” 

Lemire said they align their sampling with the seasons; DAVIDsTEA often comes back in the summer months offering iced tea as a refresher! The brand also keeps their ROI in mind by including a 20 percent off online coupon with each sample, driving traffic to their website and measuring how effective each campaign is. 

Davids Tea at Toronto Union (Image: Toronto Union)

Kinder Surprise 

About five years ago to celebrate Kinder’s 50th anniversary they were at Union Station giving out free loot bags worth around thirty dollars and Lemire said they had a 400 person lineup all day. 

“It was crazy, everyone had to have one. We had grown adults ditching work and missing their train just to get this loot bag. I think it was so creative because it’s not a product launch, it’s not a new brand, on the contrary its a brand that is well established! But it was so successful. Its a product that is typically marketed towards kids and they were giving samples to adults. I took a train that evening, and everyone had a loot bag. It’s obviously such a great chocolate, but I never thought that people would be lining up for this, but they sure did! I think nostalgia played a big role in the success of that campaign, and we are actually planning a few campaigns based on the success of this one.” 

Lemire said this switched the way she thought about samples as a brand should not just give out a sample just for the sake of it, but they should keep in mind what people want and need. There will be lots of exciting new samples, pop-up stores, and new retail stores opening at the Union, but Lemire says to lookout for announcements on their Instagram page @torontounion. They have a lot of events coming up, including their famous Union Summer festival, which will feature 8 food vendors throughout the summer, refreshing drink options, and free programming from June 26th to August 27th

“A key sentence we look out for in events is to hear people say that this is exactly what they needed today. You can walk through Union and if you don’t want to engage, you don’t have to, but if you are in a mood to explore and to discover, then we will have something for you. The station is full of surprises with things constantly popping up: new stores, art exhibits, cultural programming, free activities, festivals, and brands to discover!” 

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Shelby Hautala
Shelby Hautala
Shelby Hautala, based in Toronto, is a new Journalist to Retail Insider. She has experience writing for local newspapers and also internationally for Helsinki Times while she lived in Finland. Shelby holds a Bachelor of Journalism Honours degree from the University of King’s College and a Social Work degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax.


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