The Ethics of Selling Free Beauty Samples

Everyone loves a free sample, whether it’s a fragrance vial or a tube of body lotion. However, since the rise of the subscription beauty boxes, samples (alternatively called deluxe sizes, discovery sizes, travel sizes, or special sizes) are now a big business. Theoretically when a product says ‘sample’ or ‘not for resale’ then no money should change hands. Beauty subscription services are quite clever in this, and that you pay for the box or cosmetics bag the products come in, so you aren’t actually paying for the samples, although customers are more concerned about the value and quality contents rather than the box. I’ve bought boxes where the products clearly say ‘not for resale’ so where does the consumer stand on this? They have no rights, because what they have bought is a box or bag with an undetermined selection of products that can vary in size and quality.

Samples have never been easy to obtain (and I used to work as a manager on a beauty counter), basically because people love free things and the system gets abused with people taking more than they need because they can. In the beauty world, samples are a marketing tool and they cost money to produce. It comes off the marketing budget, so outlets will only be given an allowance each month based on turnover and their demographic, unless there is a nationwide launch, where leaflets with sachets are usually provided. They need a return on investment, so the usual channels of distribution are via a beauty counter, a magazine promotion where the target audience can send off for a sample, or these days via a social media site or website.

So how did beauty boxes get away with charging people for free samples? Many include a full-sized item to make the box contents look good value (even if it was cheap, as people would hone in on the words full-sized), and obtain them at a wholesale price or free in exchange for exclusive publicity. These days, the customer is more demanding and once a company begins to send out repeats or tries to pass off sachets or fragrance phials as luxe sized samples, the cancellations start to flood in. Sadly, some don’t understand that they aren’t paying for the samples, but the packaging, therefore, these companies aren’t doing anything wrong legally. Others try to offer discounts with longer subscriptions, free gifts if they sign up, loyalty programs, and referral schemes to keep subscribers loyal. This can backfire though, because unhappy subscribers tend to vent on social media, and bad publicity means potential subscribers will be less likely to sign up. No one can get away from the fact (as much as one can dress it up) that customers don’t care that much about the box or bag (many recycle or give them away), and it’s the samples or products that actually matter.

Some companies make a charge for samples (that they acquired for free), while others encourage a higher spend with the lure of free samples when they spend over a certain threshold. Recently, I’ve seen on eBay and other beauty swap clubs where people are applying for, or are acquiring free samples and then selling them for profit. That to me is highly unethical, because people are applying to get the samples in order to sell and not to try the product, thus denying a potential genuine customer from sampling the product. I have tried a few beauty boxes where some full sized items have been available, only to see them listed individually on eBay at a hiked up price. I was quite miffed the other day when I saw someone who had applied for and received a free Giorgio Armani mini lipstick (on offer from the Armani website) and who was selling it for £5 plus postage. That to me is wrong, as they hadn’t paid a penny for the product and were trying to sell something they weren’t actually entitled to.

Companies may bundle up a few special sizes and samples and sell them as a travel set or offer them as a gift with purchase, but as they have paid to manufacture them, they can choose how to distribute their products. Samples are necessary for the high-end beauty companies because loyal customers will buy new products once they have tried them, but how can they control people selling their samples? I also saw a deal on an online site where someone (a salon) was selling testers of Carita. Again, that’s not ethical as testers are provided free, but how do companies stop this? People do fall for marketing jargon when a special size is stated as being worth x amount, but in reality, there is no selling or retail value attached to a tester or sample. On a Facebook group, I saw someone trying to sell their Elemis special sizes that were free with a purchase for $15 each, bear in mind they only had to spend $40 to get three free; the seller was clearly trying to make a tidy profit. I noticed people didn’t respond though, because there is a difference between selling them to cover costs, and people trying to make a profit. Another swapper had bought items to get a free gift bag with samples they weren’t going to use (so why buy to get it?) and proceeded to list them all at retail prices to sell off. As expected, no one jumped at the chance to buy a sample at retail value! That’s called greed and is also deceitful.

I feel swapping samples is more ethical, and if you do sell them, then price them not based on the perceived value, but on the basis of how you got them (via a beauty box, or free) to cover your costs and a little extra. Of course, these are my ethics, but selling samples as a business is slowing down, even though people are still exploiting the market. New beauty boxes are cropping up with promises of full sized products and not samples, but most of these items will have been acquired through third parties (no guarantee of authenticity or how old they are) or are discontinued items still being marketed as if they were full price. Some will fold, because the cosmetics companies only produce samples of certain items, and once they have done the rounds of all the subscription services then what do they do? An option is to buy in products as wholesale prices, but if they don’t get enough subscribers they have dead stock on their hands. The thing is now people expect generous sized samples, and if they pay for a box of samples, they want value for money. I don’t think a 1 ml sachet of a $150 eye cream is good value, or a shampoo sachet good for one application, and passing these off as luxe samples is an insult in a paid for beauty box. A sample ought to be complimentary, and by all means buy them if you wish, but consider whose pockets you are actually lining.

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