SOCIAL STUDIES The Art of the Trader Joe's Sample Pass Deanna Raphael

There is a genuine art to the passing of a sample.  When you’re given the honor of brightening up someone’s day with a little unexpected treat, you must use your powers for good.

If you frequent Trader Joes’s, you know that in addition to cheap wine, Mini Beef Tacos and Chocolate Filled French Toast, there’s a sample-stand. The sample-stand usually has a warm beverage, either coffee or cider, and a delicious treat. At that stand, I’ve enjoyed myself a tasty taste of Reduced Guilt Ziti, a try of Shrimp Stir Fry and a mouthful of Mac n’ Cheese, to name a few.

It’s usually in the Trader Joe’s parking lot, ‘round the time when I secure a cart, that I begin to plan my sample-stand attack. What I want to do is make a beeline to the samples the second I get in the store but I’m a lady.

Instead, I’ll walk down the bread aisle for some “This Strawberry Walks into A Bar” cereal bars and Ezekiel Bread. Dairy is the next logical step because it’s in direct line of the stand. I’ll snatch up some Greek Yogurt and Fat Free Half & Half and then…it’s go time.

My big move is to casually sail past samples, swing a look to see what’s doing and then nonchalantly circle back.

In a perfect world, the sample has just been placed on the tray, I’ll scoop it up, exchange a smile with the “crew member”, compliment the snack, toss the paper cup in the trash and drop a package of what I sampled into my cart. Then I’ll give the “crew member” a look that says, “Without that sample I would have never picked up the Coconut Curry Sticks.  Thank you for all you do and how you do it.”

Sometimes the sample is so delicious that it inspires banter. We’ll talk recipes, spices and pairings. That’s a best-case sample-passing scenario.

I’m also fine with a drive by. No words exchanged, samples on the tray, quick smile, grab treat and hand my empty sample cup to the checkout person on the way out. Fine.

What I’ve been experiencing lately, and I DO NOT LIKE, is the passive-aggressive sample passer. I can spot him three aisles down. I specify gender for a reason. In my experience, only men over 45 do this. He’ll be standing behind the stand, alert and eager. He has not placed any of the samples on the display tray, which is always suspect. I’ll tell myself to keep it moving, this isn’t going to end well.  But my desire to taste the treat is always stronger than my good sense.

He’ll look at me like, “What can I do for you today, Miss?”

Well, this isn’t a deli where I have endless options.  I’ll take it. I’ll take whatever the say hey you have to offer. It’s ONE thing. I’d like THAT thing. I’d like the only available possibility. Look to your left; see that hot plate with food in it that you’ve been doling out for the last 45 minutes? That’ll do. Why are you making me beg? I don’t like you.

Those are the thoughts that rush through my head. In actuality, I’ll blankly stare at him, point to the food and say, “That.” Which is a pretty powerfully obnoxious thing to say. In one word I’ve turned what should have been a nice exchange into something dirty. But I feel justified, he started it.

Whether he would cop to it or not, I believe he’s using his job to force humans into conversation. He doesn’t like how he feels when someone grabs a sample and runs. He feels he deserves more than that from us. So he’s designed the exchange to force a dialogue. The conversation, if there were any, should be sprung from the sample. I resent being forced into a dialogue because Homey doesn’t have enough friends or lovers or whatnot. That’s not in the contract I signed.

After I bitch-slap him by saying “that”, he’s totally thrown off his game. He usually stutters something about keeping the samples warm, etc. That argument doesn’t hold water with me. I’ve sidled up to the stand and we both know the score buddy. While you were busy watching me walk over, you should have been busy hustling me up a sample. Then he’ll ask me something non-sample related like, “Is it still windy out there?” Only further proving point.

I end up walking away feeling badly – never about eating the sample because samples don’t have calories, but because I didn’t rise above my emotions and give it up to Needy Sample Guy. I’m trying to right now imagine behaving differently… Nope, can’t do it.

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  2. I’m adding to the chorus of demo workers at TJ’s and all I’m saying is that it’s not rocket science. We pass samples so that customers will try new things and with any luck, like them and buy them. Yes, we’re encouraged to engage in conversation, and I’m happy to help solve a kitchen conundrum or drop some product knowledge on you, but most of the time I don’t really care that you’re tired after yoga or that you don’t own a microwave. All I ever really want to hear is a simple, “Thank you.”

    And if awkward middle-aged sample man is holding out, just ask nicely, thank him, and make your exit. Courtesy is the least you can pay for your free sample. Just acknowledge that there’s an actual person behind that cold steel demo counter and usually we don’t want an exchange that will leave anyone feeling badly.

  3. Um.. I agree with Deanna. Last time I checked the casino odds are stacked so that the house wins most of the time. And likewise TJs offers up the samples because the majority of the time it triggers the customer’s hunger and instigates greater sales. So all this emotional BS from the employee playing these strange games in order for you to throw more dollars at the company seems a bit disingenuous. How about keep all that at bay and serve up the cheese for we mice and fill your empty soul with the paycheck you’re getting in two weeks. Theeenks.

  4. Enjoyed the post (funny) but enjoyed the response by Samara even more. I, too, work for TJ’s (midwest) and totally agree that working demo can be tougher than you think. If the coffee’s empty, you hear about it. If the sample is cold, you hear about it. And if you shop when the store is super-busy, you have experienced for yourself just how difficult it is to even get to the demo counter through the throng of adults, children and carts. It can be a little like working the sideshow at a carnival…and that’s what makes working at TJ’s so much fun. The employees are known for being wacky, happy and enthusiastic about the store, the products, the customer, life in general. We’re encouraged to be ourselves and to bring fun into the shopping experience. Even if it wasn’t my employer, I’d much prefer to be drawn into a short convo with someone about a sample or a product or something silly than to feel like I’m interrupting someone or snapping them out of a coma or doing them a favor by shopping there. I’d go on but I don’t want to be late for work…and I’ll BET you I’m in demo today!! :-D

  5. I love this post! I work at a grocery store and we are known to give the “long spiel” to customers who just passive-agressively grab samples or take more than one without asking. Just pretend to act interested in what we have to stand for hours handing out to people, for the love of god!

  6. Deanna, I really appreciate the humorous tone of this post, and we ALL love free food, so I feel incredibly silly leaving you such a serious comment, but I feel compelled to do so, so here goes….

    As someone who worked this job for two years in an east coast store, I can tell you that it is thankless, so it would warm my cold little heart if you could try to be a little more understanding of the TJs sample server next time you’re out grocery shopping. In most TJs locations, the person who serves the samples is also responsible for preparing the food, refilling the free coffee pot every fifteen minutes, and all set-up/clean-up/maintenance of the demo stand throughout the day, so the logic that he or she should be able to quickly whip up a sample for each and every customer that walks by is slightly flawed. (And I’m sure that this is obvious, but it’s worth pointing out as well that not every type of sample should be placed on a tray for customers to pick up at their leisure. Some samples become cold, soggy, dry, or just generally unappetizing or gross-looking when they sit out at room temperature for more than a couple of minutes.)

    Another thing to consider is that a lot of sample servers are actually instructed by their managers not to just put samples out on a tray, because engaging someone in conversation while they take their sample tends to actually sell more product than the drive-by, no words exchanged type of sample. It’s not just that your sample server doesn’t like how it feels when someone takes a sample and runs — although yes, it does feel pretty crappy — it’s also a matter of trying to effectively sell the product.

    Like I said before, we ALL like free food, and this is an undeniably hilarious post. But next time you’re out shopping, instead of bitch-slapping this guy with a “that,” think of me and try “Hey, I’d love to try whatever you’re sampling today” instead. Because getting on the TJs sample server’s good side is NEVER a bad idea. Trust me.