The beauty industry has long relied on free samples to reach new customers, but they have become even more key to attracting and retaining consumers in China’s crowded beauty market
In the West, consumers often ask for samples prior to purchasing an item to try before they buy, whereas in China brands tend to give out samples only once a shopper has purchased a full-sized product. To Chinese consumers, samples or gifts are no longer a feel-good treat or an unexpected bonus, but instead have grown to become a key selling point driving consumer behaviour and spending.
Chinese consumers who regularly visit official branded stores on Tmall or JD will often expect samples to be full-sized, particularly during major retail events such as the annual Double 11 Shopping Festival (also known as Singles Day). High-end brands will often give away a selection of sample-sized products that add up to the volume of a full-sized product. Chinese shoppers may also rate their shopping experience based on the quality of the sample received. This is similar to the “blind box” phenomenon (where consumers purchase a package from a brand containing unknown contents), where the game-like element of opening the boxes stimulates buyer curiosity, and the unwrapping experience is tailor-made for sharing on social media.
The fact that samples are usually only received after the purchase of a full-sized product has created a thriving market of multi-brand sample stores, the most famous of which is Harmay. According to Jing Daily, Harmay was valued at RMB 500 million in early 2021 and has expanded rapidly in recent years, opening branches in major cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou. Shopping at Harmay is somewhat of a ‘blind box’ experience; the store doesn’t necessarily always stock the same products or brands, promoting revisits. This appeals to young consumers who are enthusiastic about discovering new products from international brands but may not have the cash to throw away on products they may not like.
Chinese consumers have literally hundreds of consumption channels at their fingertips, leaving them constantly on the lookout for added-value, experiential spending opportunities
While beauty samples of all kinds are popular, brands should be careful not to underestimate the sample quantity and design detail demanded by Chinese shoppers, so as not to receive negative feedback and damage to brand reputation. Frequent changes to the type or quality of samples offered can also work against brands and reduce profit margins.
Skipping samples completely is a difficult move to make — even if you are not in the beauty sector — as gifting something extra has become a key marketing tool used to tempt new customers, as well as maintain current customers’ loyalty. So think twice when planning your budget for samples, and consider gifting in a sustainable and innovative way to best connect with your Chinese consumers whilst driving your success in-market.