True Story: I’m A Grocery Store Sample Lady

This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things.  This is the story of Jan and her work as a grocery store sample lady.

 

note: this is NOT Jan


Tell us a bit about yourself!

I’m 64 years old. In previous lives I was an ESL teacher and before that had a 20 year career at a newspaper. Two years ago I moved to La Crosse, WI. to be near my daughter and her family. I moved with no job lined up in La Crosse, thinking that with all my experience, I’d be sure to find one. This city has a large Hmong population, so I figured there would be ESL opportunities here. Not so.

What do you do for fun?
Much of my fun derives from my two grandsons, who are 2 and 6 years old. I babysit frequently, spending time making cardboard space ships, playing at the park, cooking, making things with Playdoh, dancing to the Wiggles. You get the picture. I have a gentleman friend with whom I can go to the many outdoor concerts here in the summer, watch movies, go for hikes.

How did you find yourself working as a sample lady?
My job hunting efforts were not yielding anything. I’ve probably applied for more than 100 jobs, applying only for those I thought I had a chance to get. I got pretty discouraged. I also became very poor. On Social Security and a small pension from the newspaper, I needed to earn some money. After a summer of having less money than I’d had in my life, I found this job, with a marketing company that contracts with Wal-Mart/Sam’s Club to provide demonstrators. Our services are ultimately paid for by the manufacturer of the food product we demonstrate. It was hard to accept this job considering how I feel about Wal-Mart (I had never shopped there) and my attitude toward highly processed foods (comprising about half of the food sold at Sam’s.) In short, I was desperate enough to make this concession.

I schooled myself to adopt a positive attitude toward my work. One friend advised me to put a little love into every sample. I would look at every customer as a precious and lovable fellow human being. I’d be efficient and guard against waste. I’d smile at everyone.

Pollyanish as this seems, this strategy worked. Smiling at people brought smiles back, which made me feel good. I educated myself about the products and told the customers the truth about the nutritional contents. Over time I grew familiar with individual members and could have more interesting, if brief, conversations. Some sought me out for product information, or just to schmooz.

Can you tell us about an average day on the job?
When I get to Sam’s demo staging area, I gather the tools I’ll need to perform my demonstration (or “event” as it’s called by my company.) We do the cooking when we are on the selling floor. I stand at my station for 3 hours at a time, with an unpaid half-hour break. This is the most difficult part of the job – standing in one place. Another difficult aspect is boredom, when traffic is slow. I just stand there. No sitting. No bringing a book to read.

I deal with the boredom in several ways. I practice standing on one foot and count the seconds before I lose my balance. (There has been little improvement.) I count and rearrange samples. I reorganize the equipment under my cart. I alphabetize equipment. I grab items off the shelves and read the ingredient and nutrition labels, read slogans on T-shirts, (I put ketchup on my ketchup) or I try to engage customers in conversation.

Have you discovered any particularly awesome products while working this job? Any really bad ones?
The good: Sam’s has made a big effort to have very high quality fruits and vegetables. These are a good buy and look amazing.

The questionable: Sam’s has opened a bakery, which they are promoting as fresh and home baked. They are telling the truth, technically, but nothing is actually made there. It comes from somewhere else and is just baked there.

The ugly: Horrifying steak chimichangas, microwaved, which – when cut into bite sized pieces – squirt out a nasty brown liquid. Worse yet, lots of people liked them.

What are some of funniest responses you’ve gotten to your samples?
Whenever I sample out hummus, someone will call it pumice. “I’ll try some of that pumice.” Or they pronounce it “hyumus” as if it’s rich soil. Customers make stock remarks about certain foods. If you serve sausage, they ask “Where are the pancakes.” If you serve a cold drink, they say it would be better with vodka. Coffee samples inevitably get “Now I need a donut.”

How has this job made you feel about humanity in general?
Here I must confess, I’m not such a shining example of loving kindness.  I’ve read that Wisconsin is second to Arkansas in obesity. Never have I seen so many gigantic fat people as I see at Sam’s. I’m talking whale-like. So far I have restrained myself from counting fat people and figuring out percentages, but my guess is that ¼ of the shoppers at Sam’s are morbidly obese. The foods sold here are a contributing factor.

I never expected to be at this job this long (9 months so far). I enjoy the work and the people far more than I ever expected to, yet each day I am a sample lady is a day I’m not doing something more meaningful.

Thanks for sharing, Jan!  Do you guys have any questions?  Have any of you done similar work?

39 Comments

Rachelia G

Wow, this has go to be one of the most interesting true story's I've read on here. It's just something I wouldn't normally think about! There are a few sampling ladies I interact with at our local grocery store regularly and they seem to be so upbeat and cheery and wonderful – I forgot how boring the job could also be!

Jan sounds like a wonderful and fun woman, and I'm glad she has managed to make the job work for her, and even though she had to make concessions to even take it, she still manages to uphold some of her beliefs and passes on her knowledge to others. Awesome!

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Amanda

I did that job for a summer and, although I was good at it, I couldn't bear it… good on her for sticking with it that long. Also for tackling those morals of hers in order to even take up the job, yikes!

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Kim

I feel as though I must defend Arkansas, as it is my state. We are not the fattest state, nor is Wisconsin the second fattest for that matter. Mississippi currently holds the title.

Living just a short drive from Wal-Mart and Sam's headquarters, I have a love hate relationship with them. I hate that I have to go to them because it's all I can afford. But I love the things they beig to our community, like broadway shows at the Arts center they built, the museum the heiress built, the scholarships and grants they give to things that matter. Hell, my job wouldn't be there in part if they weren't so successful.

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Cheryl Harrison

I had this exact same job for three days. I was fortunately able to find a full-time job and left immediately. You seem to handle it better than I did. The stock answers are the worst 🙂 Thanks for sharing your story!

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M. Skinner Events

I did a similar job for a month. I pitched high end products at a Sam's Club discount just for members. I was horrible and in the Milwaukee Area. I was really good at selling the products, as my pay depended on it. Jan, you sound like a lovely woman and I'm sure if you keep looking around you will find something. I'm now a Chiropractic Assistant. I never thought I'd be here, doing this but I'm making lemonade out of lemons just like you.

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Kelly

I really enjoy this series, and thank Jan for sharing her experiences, but I don't think even the morbidly obese deserve to be called "whale-like."

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Anonymous

Yikes, once upon a time, I had that same job, and it was soul-crushing, to put it delicately. I hated every single moment of it and could not WAIT for something better to come along. I am impressed that she lasted 9 months. I think I lasted 6 weeks.

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Jeaneva Spencer

I used to have this sort of job. You really need patience. Some people just take multiple samples, leave their garbage on the table and ask rather ridiculous questions.

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Anonymous

"Gigantic fat people." Really nice. I wonder if Jan considered her lack of tact as a potential reason she's not finding work.

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Anonymous

You know what, let's stop babying people. When I see someone morbidly obese, I wonder….didn't you see the pounds start to creep up? You didn't just wake up one day and…oops! I'm 400 pounds. I don't want to have to pay to insure your unhealthy body.

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Eli

I'm glad I'm not the only one left with a bad taste in my mouth from Jan's fat-hate.

I'm sad to see such a nugget of negativity on what's usually such a positive place to be.

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Lorra Fae

I don't see her comments as fat-hate. How is it fat-hate? She is just saying what she sees. What should she call them? She isn't saying it to their face – obesity is a horrible problem, and I see her comments as being upset that the kind of work she is in CONTRIBUTES to such a sad problem. She is not singling out anyone and making fun of them. She was just using a descriptive term because a lot of obese people are not "whale-like" – I certainly do not hate fat people but man, I am a HUGE health advocate and it makes me VERY sad and angry that people cannot afford to eat well, and they are having terrible crap promoted to them, like the things Jan is selling, and it's even more sad that she is poor enough to have to take a job like this.
Man, this world.

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Sarah Von Bargen

Hi guys,

I can certainly see where you're coming from. I make it a habit not to edit the True Story interviews because

a) they're not my stories to tell
b) these words are a reflections of each person's experiences which is pretty much the point of these interviews

There have been several True Story interviews that I, personally, do not agree with, but I think those stories are important to tell. I'm not saying that the fat comment is particularly integral to Jan's story but I do think it says something about the American economy, etc.

In that
1) Unhealthy food is cheaper and more widely available than healthy food
2) The economy has forced a lot of us to take jobs we don't like and probably feel guilty or badly about
3) Honestly (and on a waaaaay lighter note) – who wouldn't be driven to say mean things (not necessarily about weight but about humanity in general) if they had to work a job like this? Few things made me hate people more than working retail.

As always, I appreciate your feedback.

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Donna

I have worked as a Sample Lady . . . Now called a Product Demonstrator and this woman is not exaggerating she’s being honest. People think this is a very simple job where you open a package and hand out food, not even the beginning! That’s after you take all this food safety training to make sure you, know temperatures, health codes, company policies, store policies and the exaggerated mood swings of ever-changing management. They have soooo much to learn before they can hand out one sample They have to lift those ovens off of shelfs and onto those carts, stock those carts, keep those carts spotless, while people insist on putting their hands all over them, keep a record in their drawer for the health department and the store to be updated every 2 hours, no matter how busy you are! They deal with hot grease, for example frying bacon and are often terrified a little one is going to reach up on their cart. They have to be fully knowledgeable of every product they demonstrate from how to choose a watermelon to how do I know these eggs are good till this day to does this product have ABCD in it. Where did this product originate and what is the price per ounce just for example. They have to take those carts down in the evening and sanitize clean and prep them for the next day. Then they go in the back and everyone takes turns washing dishes drying dishes, taking out trash. It’s just like cleaning up after Thanksgiving dinner every shift. In good States they make a whopping $10 an hour, period! There are no benefits and there are no raises. The overall idea is…you do your job well and you get more hours. When you go in a store and you see those huge dessert events where, they’re sampling 20 cakes and twenty pies and you have people wanting to try every single one of them. please say a nice word to them because when they get to the back with that mess and then having to clean up out there, all they want to do is lay down. There mind is boggled serving 20 plus members at a time. I was promoted after some years and I got to know all the Sample Ladies in my store and find ways to make their day special & say ‘Thank You’ for all the people who did it. You see at Sam’s Club you’re the member and you can have one to three or five samples it doesn’t matter to us. All we want is your honest opinion; if you like it or not because, every night we go home and we fill out a survey to the vendors. So the kindest thing you could do to the sample ladies is find one and learn their name & when you come in say “Miss Susie’… that makes our day special that you remember one of us and then we look forward to seeing you. Yes we love to serve children, we enjoy their humor and the Innocence they bring into our days, NOTE: we will get fired if you send your children to us without an adult & we serve them.
*THE SIGNS ON OUR CARTS ARE MANDATORY.
*DO NOT BE OFFENDED if you see us throw a sample out. If anyone has touched it, it must go in the garbage. You wouldn’t want someone running their fingers over your dinner plate
* WE DO NOT WORK FOR SAMS! You heard it right! We are a company who works for every product you buy to see how you like it what your reaction is and if they should market it another way.
Please, just enjoy & be kind.

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Jenny

I've never been employed to do this exclusively, but I've done it on top of my unreasonably long list of grocery duties. While people can be discouragingly entitled and vulture-like regarding free food (me too-it's human nature!), it was always the parents who would set a poor example to their kids about politeness, respect and human decency that really got me down. However, there are often very understanding and positive-energy-giving people (like you readers)that would restore my faith in humanity. So in a nutshell: "thanks", a smile and an appreciative pause while you are eating go a looong way. Stepping off the soapbox now.

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Anonymous

I am also a demo person, and have been for over a year, but at a natural and organic foods co-op. The company itself is incredible; I am paid well and love all of my coworkers. That said (and with the hopes I am not sounding too pompous) I cannot fathom working at a conventional, big-box-type store like Sam's Club doing this job, and not being able to have pride in the products you have to hawk. The best part of my job is knowing I am supporting local small businesses and farmers, and to be so disconnected from that I think speaks not only to customer attitudes about the food itself but their attitude towards the person sampling the product.
All those things aside though, with regards to Jenny's comment above, even kale-loving hippies turn into vultures when presented with a tiny portion of free food.

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Anonymous

I work Ina call center — which can certainly be a soul-crushing job — but I'm grateful every single day that I don't have to be face-to-face with our clients. I applaud you, Jan, and I definitely understand what it is to work daily in a position that runs against your personal values.

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Anonymous

"Never have I seen so many gigantic fat people as I see at Sam’s. I’m talking whale-like."

It made me really sad to see this fatphobic comment on Yes and Yes.

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Michelle

Fatphobic? It's not a reflection on Yes & Yes, don't try to make it so!

I took it simply as a descriptor of what she is seeing. Meaning that the people she is seeing are very VERY large, as in morbidly obese, as in much bigger than me (who is obese).

People need to stop being so precious.

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Anonymous

Agreed. She was being comic during an interview. It wasn’t a personal comment towards someone. It’s a comment like so many people use like “white trash” or “skin and bones” towards a skinny person. You people are taking it personally. Lighten up,

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anna3101

I don't understand why so many people are getting so squeamish about what is a simple fact. Jan described what she saw, that's all.

I don't live in the States, so I don't know how things are over there but here in Eastern Europe many obese people are like that (and teach their kids the same) not because of an illness or any other serious reason but because they are lazy, advertisements-influenced and prefer to buy ready-made "branded" foods. I often see this sad sight in a supermarket: people buying scary-looking green/purple drinks, Danone "yogurts" that don't even contain fruit only artificial aroma, Nestle sweets with "E" all over them, huge chunks of meat etc. If only they wanted, they could choose other, normal products for the same price or even less. But it takes time to check the package, read the ingredient list and then mix your own yogurt at home or make a soup etc. I feel both sorry for these people and irritated with them – for the fact that they teach their children to treat their body as a waste dump. Also, as a recovering sugar addict, I know something about how hard it is to fight the habit if you have been given candy since you were a very little girl.

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Eternal*Voyageur

You summed up my feelings exactly. I live in western europe, and from my observation the people with serious weight (and health!) problems aren't poorer — they are simply less aware and less educated. Even the kindergardens they send their kids to serve frozen foods — unlike the "better" kindergardens (which aren't even more exopensive but just happen to have a clear pedagogical concept). In my town you can get an organic Falafel wrap for as much as a McDonald burger — and which one people choose when they need a cheap snack depends on what is in their brains, not in their pockets.

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melina bee

I feel you big time! like tons of other americans, I've struggled for over a year to find meaningful work and have been in retail since. It really does take a super huge toll on you emotionally b/c most people assume they are better than you and you should should just take whatever they dish out at you. Sarah is absolutely write in her 3rd point. It gets hard not to be judgmental when you're dealing with so many people. It is very very challenging to smile all day while you are bored to tears.

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Kelly

I'm not easily offended, and would rarely post my feelings about something like this on a blog. I think it's worth it this time. Jan's comments about other people's weight are out of line. I agree she should be allowed to tell her story the way she wants to tell her story but, ultimately, her observations don't speak of care and concern for other human beings, but of judgement. It's disappointing for Yes and Yes.

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Anonymous

Have you ever used any negative words to describe skinny people? How about anorexic or emaciated? Have you ever looked at a very skinny person and thought they looked disgusting? This is usually socially acceptable. I've had people say some of the most offensive things to me regarding my size (very small) without batting an eyelid. However, saying anything about fat people is taboo. No one is allowed to express his or her opinion because fat people might feel offended. Somehow though, fat or obese people are the only ones whose feelings are ever considered. I suppose calling someone "whale-like" isn't nice, but if the shoe fits… Coming back to North America is always eye-opening. Obesity is an epidemic and very little is being done about it. In fact, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease are constantly on the rise and it's mainly because people are stuck in a health-state that perpetuates these problems. The bad habits are passed down to their children. It's disgusting and it's difficult not to judge someone who allows this to happen to themselves and their children.

Not enough people value health or their bodies. And I honestly think that if we stopped pussy-footing around the issue and were more straight with people, this might change. There are massive add campaigns advocating quitting smoking. You can ask someone to not smoke around you without worrying about offending them. But in the end it's all poison people are putting into their bodies…Nicotine, trans fats, processed foods filled with chemicals. I've also worked as a demo person and I've seen morbidly obese people in the supermarkets. These people are not filling their trolleys with fruit and vegetables. They're buying white bread, Coke, chips and meat. It's frustrating to see. Swap the Coke for tap water and the money you save can go towards vegetables. Two birds, one stone. If people allow themselves to become "whale-like" they should be able to deal with what people say about them.

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Kelly

I hate to hear you've ever been subjected to comments about your weight, size or appearance. I'm sorry.

With that said, it makes it harder to understand your response. We can all agree that healthy, happy people is an admirable end goal. But when has shame or public ridicule ever helped a person take better care of themselves? You win the obesity wars by convincing people that they're human beings of intrinsic worth, with bodies that deserve to be taken care of, and by showing them how to make better choices. Comments like Jan's don't help to that end.

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Domitilla

Saying that someone is as big as a whale is NOT descriptive language, is just plain offensive. However I agree with Sarah about the not-editing policy: this is Jan's story, and she choose that words.

Beside this I'm way more perplexed about judgmental comments: how can you know the reasons besides people's choices? Can you tell apart at first glance a lazy person from someone with mental/family/personal problems that leave him/her with no energy to deal with food?
Not everybody has the opportunity to be educated about health choices, not everybody has the cultural background to tell apart advertisement and reality.

I'm saying this from Italy, and I see that my reality is way different from the US', and I'm saying this as someone who is a vegetarian who eats pretty much only organic food. I was obese as a teenager and young adult because I was an emotional eater, even if I had all the knowledge about healthy eating. I wasn't a worse person 60 pounds ago, I wasn't lazy, I wasn't ignorant. I just ate differently than I do now (and I didn't ate processed sugary stuff, I just ate a lot),and it was no-one business to judge me from the isle of a supermarket.

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jan

I really expected no response from this article since the job described is not unusual or interesting. No one wants to grow up to be a sample lady. I also didn't try to analyze the causes of obesity. I'll leave that to the social scientists and physicians. My response to the morbidly overweight people I see at my job was one of horror, not judgement. I'm horrified by what happens to the human body. I feel bad about promoting foods that make it easy to gain weight. I've had enough weight issues in my life to recognize that that could be me if …

Thanks, Sarah, for not editing me.

One more thing: These reader comments are exceptionally well written and thoughtful. You all are a credit to this blog. Yes and yes.
Jan

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Charlotte

Funny I read this article. I've just been asked by the supermarket I work at to do taste testing. I can completely related to the boredom experienced, the time seems to feel never-ending.
I found it hard at first to deal with the rejections. If you want to get over fear of rejection – do taste testing haha. I also found it suprisingly hard to approach customers, but now it doesn't phase me. It's probably somewhat boosted my confidence.
You come across such a wide variety of people. Some sweet, some rude, and some very interesting characters too. I love engaging in conversation when I can, there's so much to learn from strangers.
So despite having to manage the boredom, I don't mind the job for some extra cash.

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Rory

Wow, I can really relate to this story. I worked at Williams-Sonoma twice, both as a seasonal holiday employee but the second time as a store chef teaching weekly technique classes. I'll never forget I had a man in my class who was a mentally ill veteran who lost his ability to speak but didn't know sign language. He would come every couple weeks for the samples. What is it about food that is so revealing about people's character?

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Anonymous

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Pamela Stiles

i am looking for a job to do samples at the stores we have in my town hermiston OR

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Costco Demo Person

The portrayal here is pretty spot on. 6.5 hours on your feet (we have no breakroom, so your lunch break involves either going and sitting in your car or wandering around. It’s a life of gloves, aprons, white shirts that you must keep clean, hair nets, hats, and selling foods you either love and easily sell or can’t stand and have to sell anyway in hopes of meeting quota. If you don’t meet quota, you can be fired. If you do, you’re safe.

A lot of people will drive you secretly crazy. You have people who insist on having the freshest sample and will take from your prep area even though that is against food codes and can get the food demo person in trouble. I’ve also had people pick up one sample, put it down after deciding another sample is bigger and they want the bigger one. That’s contamination and leads to us having to throw that food sample away. Rather than do that, take the first sample and pick up a second, we can’t stop you from having more than one.

It’s the people watching that I find fascinating. I’ve seen guys hide from their wives behind my cart, kids come back for 5, 10, 15 samples and you can’t say a word or stop them if that happens and their parents let them. I’ve had elderly women give me hugs for going out of my way to help them read the ingredients on packaging, and I’ve had elderly widowers tell me how lonely they are since their wives died and that my smiling face is one of the reasons they come in each day.

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