Depends™ For Men, to be specific. They came just before Christmas in a plain white box from Kimberly-Clark that I opened with the rest of my gifts – none as thoughtful as Kimberly's. Here's the rub: I'm not a man, am in my 20s, and don't have an incontinence problem. What I do have is a thing for requesting free product samples by mail — whether or not I need them.
In a good week, I'll get over a half dozen samples: diapers and baby formula for my niece, magazine subscriptions, pads and tampons (!), laundry detergent, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, perfume, post-it notes, pens, vitamins, calendars, mouse pads, ziploc and trash bags, dog food, medicine, human food (mostly grains and instant beverages: health food bars, cereal, tea, coffee, protein supplements), calendars, subscriptions to Rouge, Ebony, and American Baby magazines, toothpaste, stickers, key chains, bumper stickers, condoms, and lube — pretty much all the things a single gal could need. And plenty of things I have no use for: a year's subscription to MotorBoating and Dime magazines, anti-ball chafing salves, and, of course, the Depends™.
Constitutionally, I'm pretty cheap. I'll splurge on sushi and have an affinity for sneakers (euphemisms), but do my apparel shopping almost exclusively at thrift stores. I use coupons religiously, know which stores do and don't take which kinds, keep track of which Panera Bread locations give away food at closing (a trick I learned in college), am a member of several local freecycling Yahoo! Groups (Welcome to 1997: They still exist!), and peruse Craigslist's Free and Barter sections way too often. So naturally, the moment I discovered that companies literally give their products away for free, I immediately got involved.
I love getting free stuff. Everyone does — especially if there's little work involved (opportunity costs factor into overall price) and there's nothing easier than filling out online forms and being sent 100% free stuff. Shipping and handling included. Google Chrome even autocompletes the forms for you after the information is stored. It's almost been too easy.
Whenever a friend or family member needs travel-sized anything, they ask me. My dog always has a nice variety of food and treats, and the baby shower basket I prepared for my sister was more than half comprised of things I'd gotten for free. Blame it on the mommy bloggers, but baby-related items are among the most readily and frequently available samples. My niece is 10 months old, still in diapers, and hasn't quite mastered the motor skills necessary to move beyond her bottle, but when she does reach those milestones, the free Pull-Ups, Juicy Juice sippy cup, and instructional potty training DVD I got in the mail will come in handy.
Right after baby products, dog food samples are always the closest to retail size. Human food samples are a close third. But, with anything you have to ingest or put on your hair or skin, if you're not familiar with the brand, GOOGLE IT. My skin occasionally reacts weirdly to major, nationally distributed brands, so I'll rarely trust my frugality-inspired blind faith on an unknown product. The same goes for health foods and supplements. There's no dearth of off-brand, vaguely shady-sounding vitamin gummy chews and whey stirs available for request at any given time. But free does not equal legit. TRUST ME.
The only drawback is that I get A LOT of junk mail — snail and e. I'm sent monthly updates about my baby's growth and development (which is always jarring, because I won't be having kids. Nightmare genes.), constantly questioned about my incontinence (imagine that on a postcard), solicited to complete interminable product satisfaction surveys, and inundated with corporate messages in pretty much every other imaginable way and medium. Pro tip: compartmentalize your interests. Create a separate sample-only email account. I wish I'd thought of this before I began my sampling journey.
But the emails and letters aren't all bad. Kellog doesn't just want to shoot the breeze after all. Often, companies send additional coupons and limited-time free sample promotions to people they know are interested. Most recently, Country Crock offered me birthday butter (YAY?!?) and I'm getting a complimentary meal from IHOP. So give your mail a once-over before you recycle it and log into your sample email address from time to time. I've made peace with the junk mail by convincing myself I'm single-handedly keeping the postal service afloat. And I can't be the only one who feels super-important when she gets several packages in one day. (“I'm the Queen Of All Correspondence!” she shouted to no one in particular.)
I'm perfectly capable of buying the things I need and a good deal of what I want with the money I have, so having all of these free samples sometimes activates a bit of my liberal guilt. But my sister puts the baby samples to good use and the free formula she doesn't use goes to other mothers. My Depends and Poise pads are going to the nursing home by my house and friend got my John Frieda Sheer Blond sample because my dark, curly hair probably wouldn't respond. And during rough, irresponsible, or absentminded patches in my life, the shower gel, laundry detergent, pads, and tampons really keep me afloat.
There are no barriers to entry once you decide you want to start sampling. If you've got an internet connection and a mailing address, you've got free samples. And you've got to have patience. Don't expect instant gratification. Packages can take from three weeks to over two months to arrive. With smaller companies, there's sometimes a lag in disabling sample sites and notifying consumers when available quantities are depleted and promotions have ended. In those cases, samples may never come at all.
Absolute sampling MUSTS are few. Firstly, if you want to start sampling in a hurry, begin by requesting from retailers (as opposed to manufacturers). Target, Sam's Club, and Walmart usually ship in under 10 business days.
Secondly, sign up for the P&G Brand Sampler. Proctor and Gamble products are ubiquitous — Bounty, CoverGirl, Crest, Downy, Duracell, Gain, Gillette, Olay, Pantene, and Pringles — to name a few. Because they all share a parent company, the best way to request samples of those products it to go to the top. Instead of filling out ten separate forms and receiving ten separate packages, you can fill out one form, become a member, and receive regular, huge shipments of assorted products and coupons. A lot of people are suspicious of Google or Oprah, but P&G is where my probably-evil-entity-with-way-too-much-power bets are hedged.
Thirdly, there are a handful of sample-a-day email newsletters that will ensure you have a steady stream of products arriving at all times. A lot of the offers are duds (though, I wasn't expecting much from this Biggest Loser and Subway Workout Mix and it turned out to be AMAZING), but often, the newsletters will feature promotions not available on aggregation sites, or have direct corporate partnerships.
Sampling DON'TS are fewer still. Products available through companies' Facebook fan pages will sometimes require your authorization to access information like your email address, to post on your wall, and to do other things that feel a bit invasive. Other times, they're no different than any other online form. If it feels weird, don't do it. And maybe you don't want all of your Facebook friends to know you've ordered a Fushigi.
Don't complete offers that look like THIS. If you're not immediately directed to an online form or corporate site, you're most likely being offered a sample through an unaffiliated third-party or being scammed. Read the fine print. Scam offers often begin on similar looking sites — all they want is your email address, for you to opt in to offers that cost and make them money, and for you to complete endless promotional surveys. You will never get your sample and you should never ever ever have to pay any money to get a free sample. Finally, most sampling sites aren't beautifully designed, but they also shouldn't look like GeoCities pages from 1995. If the offers aren't current to within a month or so, or if the site is weirdly old timey or bare, hit the back button.
Sampling isn't just for wimmin-folk either (Duh. Did anyone even think that?). Free Gilette Fusion razors and cologne samples have gone to my brother and male-friends, there's a P&G Brand Sampler for men, and I probably won't be using the D-Z Nuts anti ball-chafing cream.
My favorite sampling sites — all inventively titled:
Rebecca O'Neal only exists on the internet.