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A free lunch at Costco?

The guy who got arrested for taking too many deli samples is an extreme case. But he's not the only one who makes full meals from free bites.

By Donna_Freedman Apr 23, 2013 11:35AM
Logo: Image: Free sign (ThinkStock/SuperStock)Back in 2010, a Minnesota retiree named Erwin Lingitz was warned to stop taking so many free samples from a supermarket's deli department. When he persisted, a store security guard and a sheriff's officer stepped in.

Found in his pockets were more than a dozen packets of soy sauce and two plastic produce bags containing 1.46 pounds of summer sausage and beef stick samples. Ultimately he pleaded not guilty to a trio of misdemeanors and underwent a year of unsupervised probation, after which the charges were dismissed.

But now Lingitz is back in court, suing the Supervalu grocery chain for violating his civil rights. Since the samples were free, he claims, the store had no right to eject him by force.

The Supervalu grocery chain says Lingitz broke "societal norms and common customer understanding regarding free sample practices." The chain's reply to the lawsuit also noted that Lingitz was caught filling produce bags with up to 20 cookies from the "kids' cookie club tray."

Certainly he's not the first guy to (over)work the freebies system. Some frugality bloggers have written about making entire meals out of the free samples at warehouse clubs, supermarkets and even Whole Foods.

A reader of the Free Money Finance blog says she and her boyfriend eat free-sample meals up to five times a week at a Costco near their workplace and at neighborhood supermarkets on the weekends.

Her estimated savings: $140 to $220 per month. "It is not the most healthful meal but our financial situation is not very healthy, either," the reader writes. "You do what you got to do."

Food fights

Surely that kind of behavior is rare? Not according to two other FMF readers who identified themselves as professional food "demo" servers.

"At my warehouse we get people that come in every day and eat a sample lunch," reports a woman named Sally.

Others will "fake buy" -- put the product in their carts and later drop it somewhere else in the store -- then demand another free sample.

"This happens every day to every single demo person's product," Sally says.

A demo server named Betty says some folks come in five times a week -- "Believe me, we notice" -- and indulge in some pretty unpleasant behavior.

"People will fight over food, they will literally take it out of another person's hand, they will cut in line. And some will take five samples at once. People will go around and around, taking 15 to 20 samples from each demo."

Freebies are offered to get shoppers to try and then buy something new. When the free-lunch crowd hoovers up the trays of cocktail weenies or cheesecake bites, fewer potential paying customers get a chance to taste those wares, according to Betty -- and she has sales goals to meet.

"When we don't meet our goals, that means less hours or possibly losing our jobs," she says. "So the next time you are eating away, think about the people's jobs at risk."

Tips from the pros

Put free food out and even rational people can act a little squirrelly. Here's what PF bloggers suggest:


  • Eat strategically. Don't grab samples by the fistful. Instead, use them to take the edge off any hunger you're feeling. "With a full stomach and a frugal head, you can get what you came for and not make unplanned purchases," suggests John at Frugal Rules.
  • Be assertive. Free stuff goes fast. Don't knock people down, but don't be shy, either. "Remember, sample grazing is a contact sport," quips Gary Weinberg in "A definitive guide to food grazing (for free) at Costco" on the Good Greasy Eats blog.
  • Shop with a buddy. If you don't like a food that's being offered, give it to your pal in exchange for the samples he doesn't like, suggests FMF from Free Money Finance.
  • Don't linger. Dozens of other people who can apparently afford to shop at Costco are also lining up, impatient for that precious bite of chevre spread. More to the point, other shoppers just want to get their carts past the swelling crowd. Sally the food-sample person notes that "some members get super angry at the traffic jam . . . they hate the demos."

Ruining it for everybody

Full disclosure: I like free samples. But I don't expect to be given more than one.

Perhaps Lingitz has a sense of entitlement. Or perhaps as a retiree, he has extreme anxiety about making ends meet.

If that's the case, then retailers need to take notice, since plenty of older people have money issues. Maybe managers should require shoppers to scan store loyalty cards to prove they haven't already scored 1.4 pounds of summer sausage.

The Erwin Lingitzes of the world stand to ruin it for everybody who's ever wanted to sample black bean tortilla chips before forking over $4.59 for a bag. So do your part: Take one sample, don't get back in line repeatedly, and for heaven's sake leave the kids' cookie tray alone.

Was Lingitz justified in his behavior? Why or why not?

More from MSN Money:

Apr 23, 2013 4:21PM
I used to be employed as a demo person at a warehouse food chain. I was appalled at the behavior of some people. They push, cut in line, grab across the carts. If food samples are cooking they will stand around and wait, clogging the aisles, for twenty minutes waitng for a one ounce sample of chicken. Rarely do they say please or thank you. Many people come back time and time again. They are obvious about it. They don't give a s**t .One  woman threatened to slap me because I ran out of samples before her son had one. There were times I was swarmed. I felt like a human being caught out alone in The Walking Dead.You want to see human beings at their worst? Watch someplace where  free stuff is being given away. Unreal.
this is why my son calls the the samples at Costco the white trash buffet.
Apr 23, 2013 1:54PM
From the “Everything I need to know... I learned in kindergarten” files... it's called stealing!  Next?
Apr 23, 2013 4:57PM
If they can't afford food, how are they paying for a Costco membership?
Apr 23, 2013 4:16PM

This guy has no logical excuse to sue anyone. He is again working the system by using the civil  system to get yet another freebie. What a shameful person. If I were Costco I would counter sue him until he was so broke he could not pay attention.


Charlote believer.

Apr 23, 2013 4:10PM
I don't have a problem with people making the rounds and getting one of each sample, but stuffing your pockets?  Sheesh...
Apr 23, 2013 12:20PM

Although I must confess my guys like to graze at Costco while I'm shopping on a weekend day, I really don't like the food demos and freebies because they cause problems simply getting a cart through the store without LA freeway style back ups in frozen foods, meats, and bakery departments. I usually start shopping while they get a hot dog or polish sausage and soda for $1.50 each outside. It fills them up enough that they're happy to take only one sample of the various offerings in store. It seems a shame that anyone would actually feel compelled to make a weekend meal of food samples at Costco... or anywhere, for that matter... and sadder yet if one feels he/she has to fill pockets or a purse with samples in order to eat during the week.


Yes, plenty of seniors have difficulty making ends meet with fixed incomes as food prices continue to rise. Our little town has a senior food program providing fresh produce, bread and occasionally some meats once per week, food bank style; volunteers even deliver food to those who aren't able to drive. What I've found at Costco isn't seniors hoarding the samples, but whole families with kids lining up at each of the sample tables. The thing is, for many non-perishable food products like soups, sauces, pastas, chips, crackers, boxed mixes, etc. it's often cheaper overall to buy from Dollar Tree or an ethnic store, in some cases saving money on gasoline to and from Costco as well. Maybe families just aren't as aware as we'd assume they'd now be about whittling grocery bills to fit lean budgets?


Or it could be that hoarding "free" snacks is a lot more appealing than taking the time and effort to buy marked down (today only specials) meat and dairy at one store, coupon items at another, staples at Dollar Tree, and bulk items like rice and beans at ethnic stores? For those who say they'd spend to much in gasoline for all those stops, not if you plan the trip as a circle. For naysayers who insist it takes too much time, only if your browse at each store instead of going directly to the items (and only the items) on your grocery list. A free sample is fine. Stockpiling and hoarding free samples is at the least, lazy.

Apr 23, 2013 4:51PM
I have talked to various store managers about this very issue. I am regularly astounded at the entitlement of those who shop at Whole Foods who shop through the produce and bulk container areas and snack all the way through! They open berry containers and take a handful of blueberries and eat them, close the container and walk away. They never had any intention of buying the grapes, cherries, berries they eat, they just want them for free. Near the nuts in bulk, some will put a quarter to a half a pound of nuts in a bag, and they and their spouse will munch on them until gone, or only pay for a few ounces after eating most of the product they put in the bag. This is near Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and these well dressed shoppers do not need to do this! Entitlement again. The very expensive olive bar is another hot spot. Signs of "no sampling until purchase" isn't a deterrent to some. They will pick up a container and fill it halfway with olives and peppers, and eat the whole thing and then put the container down somewhere. I have notified security when I see these things. I have pointed to the sign a couple of times and then had the offenders stand and shout at me, yelling obscenities, mocking me. Of course they are acting out of guilt and shame, but often are genuinely shocked and mad that one protests their thefts! 

It costs stores millions of dollars to cover these losses, and they have to pass the cost onto the rest of us. So next time you see someone stealing food, quietly notify a security guard, as they will go speak to the person. Some have been escorted out of the store after being observed consuming a lot of food amounting to many dollars....Pure theft. 
Apr 23, 2013 4:22PM
Humility is dead. Where is our sense of pride in this country? Filling up on free samples for the sole reason of helping your financial situation makes you a loser. I see them every time I go to Costco. You people make me ill and you always LOOK like losers, what's up with that?
Apr 23, 2013 4:29PM
Ultimately the customers who buy goods at any store pay for the sampling that takes place.  The idiot who thinks it's his civil rights to graze should be shown the door & barred from entering again if need be.  Does not a store owner have the right to refuse service based on how a customer is acting?  I too have placed items down after sampling but usually it's because my purchase total is greater than what I thought I would spend.  Unfortunately, a growing portion of today's society is uncivilized & uncouth & think the world owes them ~ they should be treated like the animals they are & tossed from the premises.  Stores won't lose any money from losers who aren't spending anyway! 
Apr 23, 2013 4:09PM
What a chode. Free samples will just simply become a thing of the past. 
Apr 23, 2013 4:23PM
I lived in Salt Lake City for a number of years, and it is common practice after church service on Sunday for the Mormons to pack up all of their kids and hit Costco for a free lunch... They usually don't buy anything.... I always thought, that if you choose to have 9 kids, you should be able to afford to feed them...Maybe they think that Costco is Gods way of helping them out.
Apr 23, 2013 4:19PM
I demo dog and cat food.  We don't give out samples.  That's a good thing, sounds like Erwin might clean me out.  I'd have to make him sit and beg first like all the other dogs.
Apr 23, 2013 4:38PM
If I own a business, I should have the right to ask any person to leave.  Regardless of reason.  Don't care if they are too tall, too short, too ugly, too whatever.  Getting booted out for free samples is not a civil right.  Shows how pathetic our justice system is.
Apr 23, 2013 3:59PM
I love the freebies at Costco and (fewer of them) at Sam's Club but occasionally wind up buying something I hadn't previously considered until I had a taste...past couple of months included Burritos and Angus cheeseburgers.  Better odds for them than newspaper ads and/or emails!
Apr 23, 2013 4:15PM
I'll admit that I like the free samples at Costco, but even after I got laid off and hadn't applied for social security benefits, I wouldn't take enough to call it a meal.  The food IS free, but they are samples.  People should understand this.   Maybe the stores will have to post signs stating a limit.   That seems to be the way of this litigious society of ours.
 Any city big enough to have a Costco is sure to have a food bank,   And our local Costco is about three dollars worth of gas away, so it'd be cheaper to grab something from the dollar menu.  
Apr 23, 2013 4:20PM
At Costco the free samples work. there are several things I have sampled and started buying.  The Ling Ling Pot stickers, Pirates Booty Cheese puffs, are just a couple.  It is a good way to find out if you like something without buying a giant bag.  I would never abuse it, I respect the sample people too much.  Besides, it is usually the same people every time.   They will start to you if you start to abuse it.
Apr 23, 2013 4:48PM

Wow...and I feel squeemish over going back for seconds hoping they don't recognize that I was there 4 minutes earlier.

Apr 23, 2013 4:25PM
There is no free lunch anywhere else either. It cost somebody.  There should be no free lunches in schools. And, there should be no free textbooks.  I worked for my lunch and I'm glad I did.  I bought used books for half-price, took care of them and sold them at the end of the year for, again, half-price.  Books were taken care of then. Now, they are thrown out of bus windows in rain.  Free lunch students complain if their meal is too cold or too hot. They want a microwave with their free meals.  If they eat, they should either pay for the meal or work for it. Nobody should go hungry but food should not be free.  Next, they will want you to buy clothes for them! And, I am serious! Not joking!  Give them lunch, they want books.  They alaredy want free pencils and paper!! Walmart has aisles of it! I don't.
Apr 23, 2013 5:53PM
This is what happens when you raise a society with no manners or conscience or respect.
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