July 28, 2010
Case Study

Simplified Samples Program Boosts Sales 10%: 5 Steps

SUMMARY: Product samples can give your customers a taste of what you offer and encourage them to come back to buy. But once you have a sample program that's generating sales, how can you drive conversions even higher?

Read how an online retailer simplified an existing sampling program that was converting at a 40% rate, and got 15% more website visitors to requests product samples. Also, find out why you should be careful which products you select for sampling.
by Adam T. Sutton, Reporter


Daniel Cotlar, CMO, Blinds.com, offers his fellow online retailers a piece of advice.

"When I talk to other businesses, I highly recommend that they have some interaction with their customers that customers can do for free," he says.

He speaks from experience. The online retailer had allowed customers to order free window blinds samples for more than a decade. Customers did not pay for shipping and they could order up to ten different samples.

The sampling program became a big source of customers. About 25% of Blinds.com’s customers ordered samples before purchasing, and about 40% of customers who ordered samples completed a purchase within a few months.

But in late 2009, Cotlar and his team faced a new question -- how could they increase the impact of the sampling program?


Because samples had such high conversion rates, Cotlar and his team focused on encouraging more website visitors to request them. The team ran a test in November to see if simplifying the process could increase requests.

Here are the steps the team followed:

Step #1. Have a well-tested and proven sample program

The team had maintained its sample program for many years. At the time of the test, customers could select which samples they wanted in two ways (see creative samples below):
o By clicking the "free sample" button under each product’s color variation
o By using a tool to select products from lists

Customers could select up to ten different samples to have shipped free of charge. During the last two years, the team tested different packaging and marketing materials to include with the samples to increase conversion rates.

They found the following elements lifted sales:
o Professional presentation
o Marketing material explaining why to order from Blinds.com and how easy it is install blinds yourself
o A coupon for $20 toward a first order of $175 or more

The team had tested and perfected this program for years -- which was a prerequisite for the success it later achieved.

Step #2. Reduce the number of clicks required

Asking visitors to navigate the site to find samples provided a barrier. The process was not the quick, free interaction that Cotlar usually strives to achieve. The team wanted to make sample requesting even easier.

The team created eight categorized sample packs with four to eight samples each. The categories were chosen from the team’s most popular products. No longer would customers have to navigate the site to select a variety of samples. Instead, they could click to add one of these packs to their shopping carts and head to checkout.

- Add to website

The team had a tab on its homepage titled "Free Samples" where its sample selecting tool was located. On the page, the team pushed down the tool and added four buttons for visitors to request one of four packs (see creative samples below).

- Provide other options

Cotlar aimed to make things as simple as possible for his customers, he says, while some of his team members wanted to give customers more options. To satisfy both parties, the team gave customers the option to click "more" under the four buttons to reveal four additional buttons to request additional packs.

Step #3. Categorize and select samples carefully

With the new program, customers only selected a sample category. The team needed to anticipate which blinds they would like best and include them in the packs.

The team mostly selected samples by popularity -- strong sellers were included more often than weak sellers. This approach was designed to increase the likelihood that customers would eventually place an order.

However, with some packs containing up to eight samples, they reached deep into some categories and featured less-popular products that the team did not stock in large quantities. When the program took off, the team found it did not have enough stock of certain products to satisfy demand.

"All of a sudden, people started ordering these items that were ordered far less often previously," Cotlar says.

The team placed several items on backorder, which upset some customers. This was a one-time challenge they solved by bulking up inventory.

Take note: You must select your samples carefully and increase inventory to handle demand spikes.

Step #4. Avoid creating an IT project

Information Technology departments are notoriously busy, and Blinds.com’s was no different. The team wanted to complete the campaign without involving IT, if possible.

"It’s always going to involve extensive prioritization if it’s going to involve more teams, as opposed to just doing it using tools you already have," Cotlar says.

The team did not have to perform any extensive back-end adjustments to offer the sample packs, Cotlar says. After some experimentation, the team was able to work within its shopping cart system to create the packs, expediting the project.

Step #5. Track and monitor performance

Blinds.com’s corporate culture encourages experimentation, Cotlar says, as long as experiments are not detrimental to business and can be monitored for performance. This culture enabled the team to run the campaign without extensive buy-in from company executives.

"As long as you can show your results in the end and decide whether it was good or not -- that’s the only criteria for running a test like this."

The team closely watched its web analytics and ecommerce reporting to study how many more visitors were requesting samples through the new system.

Also, the team monitored which customers received samples to connect them with purchases made later on -- sometimes months down the road. This was essential to proving that the campaign increased sample requests, and more importantly, sales.

The team capped off its test in February and found 15% more website visitors had requested samples.

"It appears that this set of people had a similar [40%] conversion rate to the original set, but it’s still a little early to be sure," Cotlar says.

Since the core of the sample program was well established, the team only invested the additional time and cost of sending additional samples -- just a few dollars each. This gave the test an ROI of at least 1,000% from November through February, Cotlar says.

Overall website revenue for the year is up about 25% compared to last year and May’s revenue was up about 45%. These bumps are attributable to the new sample program, as well as the team's increased radio advertising and several new site features, such as additional videos, a product finder and a wish list tool.

Cotlar estimates about 10% in additional revenue was driven from this effort.

Useful links related to this article

Creative Samples from Blinds.com's sample program

Members Library -- Pricing Psychology Test: Shopping Guide Lifts Order Value 35%

Members Library -- Increase Conversions with Simple Site Redesign: 7 Steps


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