For many, free samples are the gateway gift to becoming full-fledged followers of a brand. That’s why many beauty brands continue to dole out sample offerings by the dozen in hopes of encouraging online purchasing behavior. But samples aren’t the same as they used to be.

The share of skincare brands offering online samples has grown by 11% year over year, with 88% of brands now offering samples on site, according to Gartner L2’s Digital IQ Index: Beauty. Consistent with 2017, 71% of DTC color cosmetics brands in the study offer samples. Despite significant consumer interest in sampling — 5% of the top queries related to “fragrance” reference samples — just 27% of brands offered these samples, down 3% from last year.

2018 marked a shift in the sophistication of sampling formats offered by brands across DTC sites, particularly across the color cosmetics category. In Q3, Gartner L2 observed growth in the share of samples containing multiple shades of a particular product, accounting for more than a quarter of all samples offered on brand sites. In contrast, packet samples — which offer just one shade — were offered by 10% fewer brands compared to the same period last year. For example, in the L’Oréal portfolio, Lancôme and Urban Decay offered foundation samples containing four distinct shades. Additionally, Givenchy offered lipstick samples featuring three of its best-selling shades.

This multi-shade method in samples may be picking up as a result of the inclusivity trend which took over the beauty industry this year. Additionally, with the rise of strobing, contouring, and even the more controversial Instagram aesthetic epidemic of white influencers attempting to appear black, having multiple shades is proving useful, for better or for worse, to consumers.

For new brands looking to get discovered, sampling can be a memorable way to make an impression. For older brands looking to promote a new product, sampling can also be a sure shot for success. However, brands both old and new should remain wary of waste when it comes to sampling. Multiple shade samples should be invested in only if the brand knows that its audience will benefit from it, not just toss it to the bottom of their bag, only to be forgotten or go bad.

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