Updated: 2/8/2012 10:04 PM ET|
Free samples: Candy to condoms
Whether you're looking to delight houseguests, try out a new product or stretch your paycheck, there's a company eager to get its merchandise into your hands.
Who doesn't love a freebie? Ah, the mailbox as piñata, spilling out free candy, breakfast cereal, cold medication, shampoo, toothpaste, body wash and other gratis goodies.
What's not so much fun is the spamming and scamming associated with many "free" Internet offers. That's why it's best to let reputable deal bloggers filter out the dross.
"I weed through things and help them find the good stuff," says Heather Hernandez, who writes a blog called Freebies4Mom.
What kind of stuff? Just about any kind you can imagine: pet food, heartburn and allergy medicines, chai tea, protein bars, feminine hygiene products, caramel apple dip, T-shirts, movie tickets, soy butter, disinfectant wipes, fabric softener, vitamins, lipstick, energy drinks, movie rentals, garden seeds, American Girl doll dress patterns and much more. Sometimes the free goodies are a lot more valuable, like electronics or vacations.
You can even get a free condom by mail. Or, if you decide not to, you can sign up for free diaper and formula samples nine months from now.
Where freebies come from
Why would a company give away a product? Because it hopes you'll pay for the next one.
"Companies are looking to put their products in potential consumers' hands. They wouldn't do it if it didn't work," says Brandt Held, a co-founder of MySavings.com.
This lets consumers try a product without a cash commitment. Ever plunk down $8.99 for laundry detergent that gave you hives or buy a shampoo that made your hair as flat and oily as a latke?
Some people prefer to focus on social-media giveaways. Facebook and Twitter feature a never-ending stream of swag -- and not just bumper stickers and buy-one-get-one sandwiches. We're talking iPads, cameras, vacations, gift cards, tickets to sporting events and fully loaded laptops and tablets.
Local and national businesses are eager to cement brand loyalty, promote new products and woo additional customers. That's why social-media sites have become "a real mecca for free stuff," says Shama Kabani, the author of "The Zen of Social Media Marketing."
Yes, the latest electronics are given away. So are video rentals and audiobooks, fast food and fine dining, designer coffee and sugar-free lemonade, hummus and burritos, jewelry and purses, gift cards and housewares, diapers and training pants, cosmetics and face creams, novels and music downloads, shampoo, hair color and even head-lice solution.
The lazy way to get free stuff
A steady stream of freebies makes it fun to pick up the mail. Harry Martin, a dedicated couponer and deal seeker, never knows what to expect. Because it usually takes a few weeks to receive the offers, he's usually forgotten what he ordered by the time the package arrives.
Sometimes he gets so many toiletries, snacks and cleaning products that he gives them to friends or donates them. Coffee samples go into the freezer until needed.
Martin is a Southern California real-estate agent who saw his income plummet right along with the economy. That's a big part of the reason he turned to coupons and began following the deal sites For the Mommas and This Frugal Life.
"They flag (offers) for me. It's the lazy man's way to get free stuff," Martin says.
Some rewards are sample-sized: single diapers, deodorants, a week's worth of vitamins, a single Kashi bar. Some of them make good stocking stuffers. They're also great for military care packages and are always needed at shelters.
Naturally, those little body washes and toothpastes are perfect for traveling. So are detergent samples. Ever see what they charge for soap at a self-service laundry? But on a three-week trip, you've got to wash your socks.
And how about road food? Erin Huffstetler, who writes the Frugal Living Guide for About.com, saves free samples for family car trips: "I'll have a big gallon bag full of snacks. Everybody thinks it's fun to try things they haven't (eaten) before."
Three more reasons free samples rock:
- They save the day when you run out of something. "Who wants to run to the store late at night to buy toothpaste?" says Jasmine Idley, who blogs at Dealicious Finds.
- They tide you over until your favorite products go on sale again. Only amateurs pay retail.
- They boost your budget. How much did you spend on toiletries last year? What about snacks, cleaning supplies or stocking stuffers?
Beyond those teeny-tiny toothpastes
These days, you're likely to get a fair number of full-size products along with things like little shampoos. Deal bloggers say that these freebies are often accompanied by high-value coupons.
Companies often require an exchange of fandom for freebies. For example, I once got a full breakfast by clicking "like" on IHOP's "Pancake Revolution" offer on Facebook. The next year, I used the "happy anniversary" coupon that IHOP sent and got another free meal.
Other promotions are actually contests. Some are simple to enter: Click "like" or re-tweet an offer. Some require a little work: Answer a trivia question, write a short essay, maybe even make a video. As noted previously, the prizes can be worth it: You can win vacation packages, electronics, gift cards worth hundreds (or thousands) of dollars.
Then again, plenty of people think that even a free ice cream treat or video rental is worth it: Dairy Queen has more than 4.2 million Facebook fans, and Redbox has more than 4 million.
Incidentally, free stuff can also be found on nonfreebie pages. Shopping sites such as CouponMom.com and Hot Coupon World, and the forums at deal-seeking sites like FatWallet.com, Sunshine Rewards and SlickDeals, all have sections devoted to cost-free goodies.
When a freebie is not free
Be wary of any offer that touts a "free" trial but requires you to pay for shipping. Handing over credit card information means you'll probably get ripped off, either by receiving products or services you didn't order or by getting billed even if you cancel the free trial.
"There are always strings attached" to such offers, says Mark Huffman of ConsumerAffairs.com.
Consumers need to use common sense: If something is free, why are they being asked to pay anything at all?
You're safest when:
- You get a sample product directly through a manufacturer's home page (which is where most reputable freebie sites will redirect you).
- The offer is found at an established retailer's site, such as the In Stores Now link at Walmart.com or The Sample Spot at Target.com.
- The offer is shared by fellow consumers in community forums at reputable deal or freebie sites.
Another common scam is the gift card or the game system that's yours -- absolutely free! -- when you sign up for trials of magazine subscriptions, book clubs, nutritional supplements and the like. One ad I saw offered a $250 grocery card, stating that most of the offers could be canceled if you're not satisfied.
However, the fine-print disclaimer noted that you had to complete at least six offers -- and that if you canceled more than two within 30 days, you wouldn't get the grocery card.
And in the meantime? "I will guarantee that your email will be shared with many other marketers," says Stephanie Nelson of CouponMom.com.
Beware when a "free" offer:
- Requires you to sign up for or buy something, even on a "trial" basis.
- Is not affiliated with the company associated with the prize (check the fine print).
- Asks for credit card, bank account or PayPal information.
Freebies -- for real
Search online for "freebie sites" and you'll be astounded at how many pop up.
Look for ones that are easy to navigate. Some separate offers into categories, so child-free consumers can ignore "family/baby," and folks with three dogs can head straight for "pets."
Find a site that suits your personality. Some are almost like clubs, with forums in which readers share advice, trade coupons and even post baby pictures. FatWallet.com is edgy, whereas For the Mommas has a friendly, down-to-earth vibe. AbsurdlyCool Freebie Finder, an automated "free stuff aggregator," delivers the goods without the hassle of an imagined community.
Once you've found a deal blogger you love, follow him or her on Facebook. The hottest freebies are snapped up quickly, and savvy "dealistas" will let their Facebook fans know when a great giveaway is about to go live.
Incidentally, you'll need to forget brand loyalty, at least for a while. This stuff is free, remember? Besides, you just might discover a new favorite.
"It's fun to see what's out there and how it works," says Paul Ivanovsky of I Heart the Mart.
Tips from the pros
National companies give away a lot of stuff -- but so do local ones. Frankly, you're more likely to win a trivia contest at Harley's Old Thyme Café in Anchorage, Alaska, than the one at a restaurant chain that gets tens of thousands of entries. Remember, too, that a franchisee may have its own Facebook page, separate from the mother ship's, with special deals for local fans.
You can try hashtag searches on Twitter, such as "#giveaway" or "#freebie," but you'll wade through a lot of results. Check the Facebook application "Wildfire" for a list of all current promotions; you can separate them by category, but it still means a lot of scrolling.
The following suggestions will make your experience more, well, rewarding:
- Create a separate email account. You will hear from companies you follow. It's not spam per se, but even monthly newsletters and occasional hot-deal alerts will plump up your inbox.
- Check early, check often. Freebies go fast. Don't wait until 11 p.m. to check your favorite deal blogger.
- Pick your spots. If your time is limited, sign up for stuff you use every day -- laundry soap and toothpaste versus nonessentials such as stickers or scented candles.
- Shop strategically. When high-value coupons come with your samples, keep them until there's a sale. You'll pay little to nothing that way.
- Treat your friends. Some freebies -- makeup, lotion, fancy pens -- are nice just-because gifts. Melissa Jennings of Stockpiling Moms likes to surprise houseguests with baskets of shampoo, body wash, lotion and other small luxuries.
- Don't spam. Some of the people you know might not want you to re-tweet deals or forward Facebook finds. Don't overload them, or they may retaliate with email chain letters.
VIDEO ON MSN MONEY
Quotes are real-time for NASDAQ, NYSE and AMEX. See delay times for other exchanges.
Fundamental company data and historical chart data provided by Thomson Reuters; click for restrictions. Real-time quotes provided by BATS Exchange. Real-time index quotes and delayed quotes supplied by Interactive Data Real-Time Services. Fund summary, fund performance and dividend data provided by Morningstar Inc. Analyst recommendations provided by Zacks Investment Research. StockScouter data provided by Verus Analytics. IPO data provided by Hoover's Inc. Index membership data provided by SIX Telekurs.
Japanese stock price data provided by Nomura Research Institute Ltd.; quotes delayed 20 minutes. Canadian fund data provided by CANNEX Financial Exchanges Ltd.