Costco re-imagines its food samples in era of social distancing

A shopper browses a refrigerated food case at a Costco in Louisville, Ky. 

Costco Wholesale Corp. has begun offering food samples again in as many as 30 locations, but the sampling stations look nothing like the gluttonous free-for-all tables of yore, which customers would crowd around three-deep for a small cup of barbecue beef or spicy salsa.

Costco, which has 547 U.S. stores, will now offer prepackaged items kept behind plexiglass shields. They’ll be dished out by servers wearing masks and gloves, according to the company and photos on the website of Club Demonstration Services, the outfit that for years has handled the setup of Costco’s sampling stations. CDS will work with local health departments and other authorities to ensure that stations adhere to sanitary and social-distancing guidelines. The first phase includes locations across 16 states.

“We are seeing what works,” Costco Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti said in an interview. “There are plans to continue to roll it out. We will see.”

Costco’s food sampling stations are a big part of its in-store “treasure hunt” experience, which keeps loyal customers coming back and often buying way more than they had intended to. They also encourage shoppers to try something new, whether it’s an Indian curry dish or gluten-free pasta.

The retailer’s low prices and bulk-sized goods have made it a favorite destination for pandemic stockpilers: Excluding fuel, the key metric of same-store sales rose 8% in its most recent quarter.

“Starting slowly will allow Costco and us to make sure we are taking the right steps to engage members safely, while maintaining the proper controls around the demo cart,” CDS President Don Dohanyos said in a June 4 message to employees. “We will take the lessons learned in our early demos to improve our overall processes while we prepare for future rollouts.”

Some of the new demo stations won’t serve food at all — instead, representatives will “explain product features and uses,” Dohanyos said in June 17 memo to employees.

Representatives from Advantage Solutions, the owner of CDS, did not respond to a request for comment.

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