Have you ever had the experience of trying a sample of something, loving it, buying the full size version of whatever it is, and being terribly disappointed? It’s happened to me enough times to make me think that some samples are specially formulated to be better than the real product. It happens most often with skin-care products and cosmetics, less often with perfume, and less often still with food and beverages.
I can think of several benign explanations for the sample-was-better phenomenon. The first is what I’ll call “context enhancement”. If the sample was tried in a festive and/or upscale atmosphere that fits the nature of the product, it will make it seem unusually good. A fragrance sampled in an exclusive perfume boutique with a friendly and helpful SA will smell better than the same fragrance self-sampled in a discount warehouse store. The same goes for a wine tasted from a sparkling wineglass at a beautifully designed tasting room in the winery itself, presented by friendly and knowledgeable personnel versus the same wine self-tasted from a tiny plastic throwaway cup at Costco. Beautiful, congruent surroundings enhance the experience. We smell or taste what we see, hear and feel. When we get the full size home and experience it in familiar surroundings, it may well disappoint.
Then there’s the adaptation phenomenon. This may be especially relevant to skin-care products, which seem to be effective when first sampled, but then lose their effectiveness when used regularly. Homeostasis kicks in, and the skin becomes resistant to whatever the product is supposed to do. With a fragrance, our olfactory systems may well adapt to it after multiple uses closely spaced in time. With food or beverages, the novelty quickly wears off, and familiarity breeds contempt.
Then there’s the batch variability phenomenon. If you tried the 2010 wine and were sold the 2011 vintage, it’s not going to be the same as the sample. If you tried a sample of the original formula of a perfume but were sold a reformulated version, it most certainly will not be the same. Even without reformulation, natural materials vary from batch to batch, like vintages of wine, so there may be subtle differences from batch to batch of a perfume, skin care product, or food. It seems unlikely that these subtle variations would have a big impact on quality, but in some cases they might.
The less charitable explanation is that samples are actually different from the full-size product, designed to impress the person sampling so that they will spring for the big size. I’m pretty sure this is the case with some cosmetic products. The mascara that worked beautifully for months in sample form clumps horribly within a week of opening the full size. The skin cream sample that made my skin smooth and moist, is totally ineffective and even smells different when I buy the full size. One perfume in particular was lovely in sample form but horrible in full size. Why, oh why did I fall for the sample and buy a full bottle?
What is your experience with sampling? If you buy a full size, does it always live up to your expectations? If not, why not?
[All images from Wikimedia except mascara samples from an old page of a retailer's website]