Artificial intelligence might be the big existential threat looming over millions of workers, but in the grocery store space, relatively low-tech forms of automation are already supplanting humans in numerous ways. Self-service setups and machines are suddenly everywhere. Nearly half of all retailers are converting to self-checkout. And now, the movement is coming for the beloved free samples at Costco.
Earlier this year, Costco shoppers started reporting that the warehouse superstore has been phasing in self-serve kiosks in place of human sample reps to distribute the fan-favorite freebies. While there’s been no official statement on the reasons why self-serve stations are taking the place of people (Costco declined to comment for this story), there are some likely scenarios.
The first is, of course, the labor shortage. You might be surprised to know that the people handing out tastes of sausages, chicken nuggets, and pot stickers are not actually employees of Costco, and therefore don’t receive any Costco company benefits. Instead, they’re employed by a company called Club Demonstration Services (CDS).
According to Glassdoor, a product demonstrator makes around $14-15 an hour, so it’s not a huge surprise that there aren’t that many people lining up for the job when unemployment is currently hovering around 3.6%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Additionally (and more morbidly), a lot of Costco sample workers are senior citizens, a population that was hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to The Kaiser Family Foundation.
The second most likely reason behind human-free Costco samples is that AI is coming in hot at grocery stores. Winsight Grocery Business reported in June that tons of grocery store employees have been, or are about to be, displaced. According to a report by data analytics firm Grocery Doppio (in partnership with FMI-The Food Industry Association), as many as 18% of store associate positions could be eliminated due to a projected 400% growth in implementation of AI in grocery stores before the end of 2024—a move that is projected to save the industry as much as $13.8 billion in store operation costs.
Costco’s sample stations, so far, are decidedly low-tech; images from Reddit and Instagram have shown gravity-fed stations where shoppers can simply grab a sample from an opening at the bottom of a chute. So far they’ve only been used to hand out pre-packaged goods, so hot pizza samples and the like are probably safe at the moment.
Given how inexpensive this solution is for Costco, it seems likely that there will be more self-serve kiosks in the near future, a fact that has Costco shoppers divided. On one hand, some customers have noted they’re happy to skip interacting with another human being and even relish the idea of digging into a pile of unguarded samples with impunity. On the other hand, there are people who prefer the personal touch of a face-to-face experience.
Sean Daley of Essex Junction, Vermont, a self-described “unironic” Costco lover, says that it would be a loss to replace sample stations with kiosks, especially because the employees are often retired folks looking to get out of the house.
“My father actually handed out samples at Costco after he retired,” said Daley. “He loved it because he loved chatting with people.” While Daley no longer hits the samples (to avoid coming home with a case of taquitos, or worse), he said losing the human factor is disappointing. “It makes me sad. It would be a shame to lose that personal touch.”
Tara Brennan from Nashua, New Hampshire echoed that sentiment.
“I’m not a huge fan of automation in areas like this,” she said. “Customer service and food service jobs require a human touch. Maybe I’m a Luddite on this one, but I think we may be going over to the dark side.”
Alissa Thitiwatana from Scarsdale, New York, on the other hand, is A-OK with the new setup, especially with young children in tow.
“I would be happy about this, because a lot of times the employee who is preparing and giving out the samples... could care less that you are waiting patiently by their station to taste that pesto pasta,” she said. “Or maybe that’s just my store.”
Thitiwatana added that being able to grab a handful of samples at will is a perk for a busy parent: “Costco samples are a wonderful way to calm cranky kids when they’ve had enough of sitting in the shopping cart. Throw a sample or two at them and it keeps them occupied.”
Mary Izett of New York City said that she has mixed feelings about a kiosk, but that Costcos in the city can be “bonkers busy” on the weekends and that salespeople can be an added stressor in a chaotic environment.
“I like the human interaction sometimes, but some of the sample people, specifically the supplement sample folks, can be aggressive, so a kiosk wouldn’t be a detraction in that case,” Izett said.
Over at Reddit’s r/Costco, the sentiments are cautiously pessimistic, with some people saying that they hope it’s not a model that’s universally adopted and others recommending that the self-serve stations remain limited to non-food items.
“They’d probably use it for things like the laundry detergent and other pre-packaged things since there’s really no benefit to having a person there handing out packets of laundry detergent,” wrote another user.
“This is one Sam’s Club move Costco needn’t adopt,” wrote user @tmorot13, noting that Costco’s biggest competitor is already adapted to self-serve samples.
The free sample scene, for a lot of people, is a huge part of going to Costco, so if you’re a die-hard snacker, getting your free bites might now require more strategizing. After all, without a human around to keep people honest, samples will run out quickly (even faster than they usually do). Consider the sociological experiment of leaving a bucket of candy on the porch for trick-or-treaters: Some kids will only take one piece as instructed, and others will steal away with as many as they can if nobody is watching.
There is no official limit to how many samples one person can take (per CBS News), but according to an AMA on Reddit, one sample distributor said that they tend to limit the handouts to two or three per person. There are also the lines, which could get even longer, especially on weekends. The best days to shop at Costco to beat the crowds—and for the best chance at scoring samples— are Mondays and Tuesdays, according to The Kitchn, although there is less of a selection of free goodies on weekdays.
It’s anyone’s guess how well Costco shoppers will adapt to self-service samples, but Brennan makes the case that humans are still better at making a sale than a machine.
“I love the interactions with the people that are frontline sales,” said Brennan. “They actually are the ones that make the sale happen with me—I wouldn’t have sampled the stuff if they hadn’t stopped me in the first place.”
If things keep moving in the direction the analysts seem to think, however, we all might need to get used to grabbing packaged snacks from a chute or, perhaps eventually, accept a pierogi or bite of cheese from a roving Costco-bot.