Online sampling strategies are more important than ever. Here, retailers and brands, including executives from Sephora, Space NK, Cos Bar and Bobbi Brown, talk about their efforts in try-before-you-buy sampling experiences.

Sampling, once a trial tactic hidden on a website’s checkout pages, has become a crucial companion to e-commerce, satisfying customers’ desire to touch and try products, with the goal of driving conversion to sales.

“Sephora has always had a very open and generous approach to sampling because we believe 100 percent in the prestige beauty brands that we carry,” said Deborah Yeh, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Brand for Sephora. “It helps us remove barriers to trial and inspires fearlessness for our clients, so they can try a new product or brand they may be unfamiliar with, or invite them to try a shade outside their comfort zone.”

From the brand side, sampling is key to getting cult favorites in consumers’ hands.

“Sampling enables us to bring a high-touch, sensorial, and interactive experience to our consumers,” said Lauren Rifkin, Executive Director, Global E-Commerce and Marketing at Bobbi Brown. “It allows our customers to test and trial a cult favorite, showing why it’s a must-have, and more importantly, how our customer can use it…We approach sampling with a two-prong approach. First, we sample our hero products that we know a customer will fall in love with if they aren’t using them already. Second, we consider sampling newness a must, as the beauty space is extremely competitive and new products launch all the time.”

In addition to always offering three free samples with every online order, Sephora is continually finding new ways to infuse its Teach, Inspire, Play (TIP) experiential approach to beauty online.

“Beauty is a very tactile and sensory experience, and clients want to know the texture, scent, color and payoff of the products before they invest. We want them to walk away loving and knowing how to use every product they purchased at Sephora,” said Deborah.

To that end, Sephora offers an assortment of samples from current bestsellers to emerging and classic brands to inspire play and product discovery. “We partner closely with our brands to deliver a mix of newness and core samples to meet their business needs. And we have incredible data on client behavior, so this lets us optimize the assortment and follow-up with our clients after they’ve sampled.”

“Increasingly, we are storytelling with sampling to provide a true 360-degree marketing platform for our products. Samples will often be tied thematically to the category or brands we’re highlighting for our clients. This makes the Sephora sampling experience seamlessly woven into the retail experience,” said Deborah.

Other retailers, such as Space NK, offer spring and autumn Beauty Edit GWP bags. “Our sampling has evolved in that we are focused on a more curated and strategic approach to align with our seasonal storytelling and launch initiatives,” said Noah Rosenblatt, Managing Director of Space NK North America. “Our sampling strategy focuses on a mix of hero SKUs that have proven to be popular with our clients, seasonal favorites and newness. We also work to ensure we have a thorough cross-category offering across various price points.”

Sephora has also recently bundled samples with relevant beauty experiences, which encourages customers to visit stores. “Our Beauty Insider Rewards Bazaar, launched just last fall, gives our clients the opportunity to deeply experience a brand through sampling plus makeovers, brand events, and related brand merchandise. It’s truly an immersive way to experience beauty,” said Deborah at Sephora.

The retailer maintains a sense of exclusivity around its samples by rewarding its top-tier customers. “Our online Rewards Bazaar is the only place to redeem the higher point value items and experiences. Beauty Insiders can find new rewards on the Rewards Bazaar every Tuesday and Thursday, which range from 100 point product samples to exclusive product bundles and experiences from 5,000 points and up,” she said.

For Bobbi Brown, its sampling program helps differentiate the brand by empowering customers to become their own makeup artist. “In the crowded and competitive digital space, it’s extremely important for Bobbi Brown to be innovative and strategic about our sampling,” said Lauren at Bobbi Brown. “We want sampling to be an exciting and fun experience for our customers – never confusing or hidden on the website.”

To that end, the brand has devised an interactive way for customers to find their foundation shade, starting with an online sample.

“Foundation is a product that really requires you to swatch it,” said Lauren. “We found a great way for our customers to swatch their foundation shade at home. We provide sampling cards for ranges of foundations, which include ample amounts of product. Once swatched, customers can order their perfect match on the website.”

The experience also enables customers to have a live chat with Bobbi Brown’s online artists, for a seamless, easy and mobile-first experience.

Cos Bar’s sampling strategy takes its lead from the retailer’s bricks-and-mortar stores.

“Since we fulfill from store, we hand-pack every e-commerce order and our Beauty Specialists select three complementary samples based on customer’s purchase,” said David Olsen, CEO of Cos Bar. “Our approach is to make sure our online experience most closely replicates the in-store purchase experience, which is customized based on clients’ needs. We are very proud of the fact that we give three samples in every order, regardless of spend.”

Cos Bar also prides itself on the personalized touch. “There is no better customization than a human being’s knowledge of what goes well with other products. Every purchase, both in store and online, gets this personalized luxury touch,” said David. Twice a year, Cos Bar holds Beauty Events giving away a custom cosmetic bag filled with deluxe samples. “We have been doing this for over a decade and it is still very popular with our brands and customers,” he said.

Sampling is increasingly taking center-stage on retailers’ websites, in accordance with its importance in driving conversion.

“In recent years, our sampling program has earned more visibility on our homepage and support marketing,” said Noah. “Space NK hosts a dedicated banner on our homepage featuring deluxe samples that are updated frequently. We also include banners in email communication and occasionally promote via @spacenkusa.”

Of course, subscription boxes also creatively monetize the world of samples, in addition to creatively packaged samples such as advent calendars.

For $10 per month, PLAY! By SEPHORA delivers five deluxe samples and a bonus fragrance sample to their client’s door. “Each box is curated around a specific theme or trend, and only includes the prestige beauty brands we carry at Sephora,” said Deborah. Recent themes include The Gleam Team (highlighting), The Soft Side (natural beauty), and Step It Up (new brand discovery). “She can play with product, get inspired form our video content online, and learn from our experts when she attends one of our in-store PLAY! Dates.”

Sephora anticipates more augmented reality-based product trial.

“We were one of the first companies to pioneer virtual sampling,” said Deborah. “You can use Sephora Virtual Artist on our Sephora App to sample thousands of the lip colors, eyeshadows, and false lash styles that we carry at Sephora… It’s not only fun and addictive, but helps in product selection.”