The Cost Of Free

April 4, 2016

Making the offer of getting something for “free” is a retailer’s way to lure a shopper to make a purchase, provide their personal information, or sometimes even both.  This is a common strategy that retailers use, especially with cosmetic products.

During a recent shopping trip I found myself at the make-up counter faced with this prospect.  I was in the store on a Thursday night and everywhere I looked were signs for a “free gift with purchase of X dollars.”  And if I spent even more, the items and value of the free gift increased.

It’s always feel good to get something for “free.”  Especially cosmetic products, which have a very large mark-up compared to the cost to produce the item.  Yet, “free” is not often truly free, there is typically a price to be paid.  Last time, I mentioned the burden of free items, taking up space and increasing clutter in the home.

Free sometimes comes with a different price, time and anonymity.  The advertisements for the “free gift” did not begin until the next day.  But the saleswoman was willing to do me a favor, she could pre-sale the items, and I just had to return to the store the next day to pick up my goods.  My immediate response was “no.”  The last thing I wanted to do, was have to make a second trip to purchase my products.  Making two trips, means double the time, gas, and wear and tear on the car, for something I paid for once.

Well that wasn’t a problem, the sales associate offered to mail me the products instead.  All I had to do, was to give my name and address.  Again I said “no.”  Now, I would have to give up my anonymity to receive my goods.  This opens the door to future marketing mailers to my place of residence.

The sales associate was baffled as to why I kept turning down her attempts to help me gain the free gift.  Finally she asked, why?  My reply?  Because I value my time and my anonymity more than receiving a bunch of products I never went into the store intending to purchase.

In the past, I have rarely found the free gift for make-up useful.  Sure, one or two items in the bag I may already use or like, but more often than not, the bulk of that free gift sits unused until I finally manage to toss it out.

I may have turned down the free gift, but I managed to walk away with the products I wanted, at the time I wanted them.  With no second trip to the store, and keeping my information, private.

Do free gifts tempt you to purchase and/or return to a retailer? 


  1. They used to tempt me! I remember back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Estée Lauder used to do wonderful makeup sets that you got free, or very inexpensively, with a fragrance purchase. To me, the makeup was worth the total price, because I didn’t care for EL fragrances. A nice bag or something beautiful was often part of the package (my sister wound up with a gorgeous Borghese music box that she has probably lost by now). All the higher end cosmetic companies seemed to do this, and my grandma and my sister and I would plan our holiday shopping around this. There was a sense of fun.

    These offers used to come with a feeling of quality, and brand loyalty, and loyalty to the customer, that you were selling a quality product. Now, there is an underlying ‘scam’ vibe to the free gift, and certainly, on my part, I am more than happy to take the free gift if it comes with something I actually want. I usually donate the freebie or give it to a friend… But in the end, it won’t inspire any additional brand loyalty on my part.

    I’m with you, I think it’s ridiculous to drive twice, or additionally compromise my privacy. I write this, knowing I am about to go downstairs and empty a full mailbox of crap addressed “to resident” or to a badly misspelled version of my name. I don’t need to be on anymore mailing lists. ‘Free gifts’ these days aren’t free at all. They really should be labelled ‘conditional and exclusive gateway items we will use against you’ because you can’t walk up to the counter and just purchase the ‘freebie’.

    These days, I don’t go for freebies, although I get offers in the mail. My one exception is Sephora, where I buy the makeup I like, and hoard my points until I see something I want to try. Sephora tries damn hard to get me into the store, or to shop online, but I’m mostly a hold-out.

    1. I remember when the free gifts were much better quality, and indeed had that luxury vibe, as you mentioned. And they were not that common. Now-a-days, I feel like every other week, someone has a free gift with purchase. There’s no exclusivity with the gift anymore. And the items in the gift, I rarely even want.

      As far as junk mail goes, I found registering with the Direct Marketing Association very helpful with decreasing junk mail. I still get some, but not nearly as much as I used to. The thing that annoys me is, the registration expires after a few years. Why does it have to expire? I do not understand that. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with me!

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