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20-40-60 Etiquette-How about free samples?

by Helen Ford Wallace Published: February 28, 2012

YOU ASK! WE ANSWER! YOU DECIDE!

Email etiquette questions to HWallace@Opubco.com

QUESTION: Is it ethical to take free samples companies offer and use them for a craft project or another personal use that has nothing to do with the product? A recent post I saw on the social media site Pinterest suggested a cute, “free and easy” way to make bookmarks out of store paint-chip samples. These samples are distributed to customers who need to match colors in their homes before they buy paint.

When a reader questioned whether it was OK to take a handful or more of those samples for crafts, other readers accused her of being “negative.” I thought the initial reader’s question was valid: Is it OK to take free samples of a company’s product to use for any reason? What about taking several samples of something you have no intention of buying?

CALLIE’S ANSWER: Ethical, no. Good idea, yes. Would I do it? No. What is it with people standing in line for a free pen? If they give it to you, yes by all means take it. Taking more than is offered is rude. There is always going to be someone that takes advantage of something free.

LILLIE-BETH’S ANSWER: The first thing to do in this situation is ask the store manager whether that’s a possibility, explaining exactly what you’re trying to do with the samples. Often the store doesn’t have a problem with people doing this if they ask.

But when someone posts something on a social media site such as Pinterest, good ideas tend to spread quickly, and a single post can result in many people requesting a lot of samples for a craft project. After a company finds its supply of free samples consistently depleted because of reasons that don’t lead to purchases, its managers might decide to start charging for the samples or stop offering them.

“Free” samples aren’t free for the people offering them — companies pay for them, whether small or large businesses — and I don’t think it’s right just to help yourself because you think you’re entitled to take them. The Pinterest post was reposted several thousand times. What also bothered me were the angry comments directed at people who questioned the idea of taking free samples, accusing them of being “negative.” This question was worth raising from an ethical standpoint. Good etiquette dictates that when we take an action, we consider how it might affect other people and not just ourselves.

HELEN’S ANSWER: It would never have occurred to me to get enough samples of anything for a group effort in repurposing, and I love free samples as well as anyone. It seems to me that one paint sample per person is what the business intended. Now, if the person asked if he/she could “buy” enough for a class project and the store staff said “just take them,” that is another story.

I saw the comments related to this posting and realize that there are a lot of opinions out there. But how would you feel if all of your samples that you had in place for buying paint were gone every time you looked in the basket, and you saw people walking out of the store with 40 paint-chip samples at a time? Not a good situation.

GUEST’S ANSWER: Yvette Walker, The Oklahoman’s director of presentation and custom publishing, and media ethics chair at the University of Central Oklahoma:

Most business owners know that anything put on display for the taking is just that, for the taking. There’s no way to control what the taker does with the takee’s items. However, I think the store owners hope that at least a good percentage of the takers plan to use the sample to determine whether to buy a product.

(Putting on my ethics professor hat:) Whether it is ethical depends on your values, principles and loyalties. Aristotle would apply his philosophy of the Golden Mean, and determine your ethics by the virtues you show. John Stuart Mill would say taking the paint chips could be ethical if it is a means to a just end. But universally speaking (taking off my ethics professor hat) … it’s just tacky to swipe free stuff when you have no plans to do business with the provider.

Come on, now. Is it too much to buy a $3 can of sample paint?


by Helen Ford Wallace
Society Editor
Helen Ford Wallace is a columnist covering society-related events/news for The Oklahoman. She puts local parties online with daily updates. She creates, maintains and runs a Parties blog which includes web casts. She is an online web editor for...
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