Last week, Amazon surprised me with a free sample in the mail.
My free Glade Plugins Scented Oil Plus Air Freshener Starter Kit (MSRP: $9.97) arrived in the box you see in the photo; the other side of the box featured only my name and address, the Amazon logo, and the words "Free sample inside".
I didn't ask for this sample.
But several months ago, I did order a refill for my Febreeze plug-in... from Amazon. Which means Amazon knew the probability I'd be interested in receiving this unrequested sample would be very high based on my actual purchase history... and I'm willing to bet S. C. Johnson & Son (owner of the Glade brand) paid Amazon a premium for that level of interest.
Sampling is a time-tested marketing tactic: when I was responsible for Coca-Cola's Canadian Energy Drink business many years ago, I'd spend a significant portion of my marketing budget each year on sampling because I know it works. You can tell someone that your product tastes great in an advertisement, but if you can allow them to actually taste it and decide that for themselves, that's infinitely better.
The problem is that sampling is expensive, in terms of both fixed and variable costs, and you normally have to accept the fact that a lot of your samples are going to be put into the hands of consumers who will never actually buy your product.
Companies like SampleSource and Sampler are both in the business of mailing free samples to households on behalf of companies who want you to remember them the next time you're shopping. They each try to address this targeting inefficiency by asking you a number of questions when you sign up on their websites: how many people are in your household? How old are they? Do you have any pets? Oh, you do... does your dog prefer dry or wet dog food? Is your hair wavy or straight? And the list goes on.
The Amazon program is different: Amazon doesn't have to ask me anything. They know exactly what I actually buy based on my extensive purchase history, so their targeting is naturally going to be much, much better. They don't need to ask me if I have a child or a pet: they can see I have both Pampers Cruisers Disposable Baby Diapers and Milk-Bone Soft & Chewy Beef Steak Flavour Dog Treats sent to my house regularly as part of my Subscribe & Save orders. They can estimate my income based on my postal code and monthly Amazon spend, infer some of my interests based on my Amazon Prime Video viewing, and know what products I've investigated based on my search history on Amazon.ca. This is next-level targeting, and it's something that's made possible because of Amazon's scale and ubiquity... which means most companies aren't going to be able to do this nearly as well.
As a consumer, this is a good thing. There's a lot of concern about the sheer amount of information that technology companies like Amazon (and Google, and Facebook...) know about all of us, but I'm personally not worried about Amazon knowing me so well if it means they'll use that information to send me free things I'm likely to use and enjoy.
If I were a packaged goods marketer, I'd be excitedly banging down Amazon's virtual door and arranging for them to send free samples of my products to people who have purchased competitive items.
If I was a company in the business of distributing samples, I'd be far less excited.