Scene from the TV sitcom Open All Hours
(image via YouTube

The trials of retailing

Musings about a puzzling notice on a box of breakfast cereals

Just recently, I noticed that the breakfast cereal I often eat carries a notice on the box, saying ‘Try me!’. It expresses a strong conviction on the part of the retailer that I will like it, and in the unlikely event I don’t, I am entitled to return it for a full refund. Does such a message actually work — does it change consumer behaviour?

For that, influencing customers’ behaviour, is what retailers try to do — whether we realize, or indeed like it, or not. What they want customers to do is simple: buy more. And they have a bag full of promotional tools at their disposal, from the gentle persuasion of eye-catching, colourful displays on shelves and packaging, to unmistakable bribes like price reductions and coupons.

One particular tactic is to encourage customers to purchase a product they have not bought before, in the expectation that they then become a regular buyer of it, and so permanently increase their overall spend. This is not a new idea. Back in the days when most people still obtained their groceries from the corner shop, it might have gone as follows:

Customer: Say, Mr Arkwright, I see you sell a new kind of cereal with wheat and apricots. It sounds interesting, but I’m not sure I’d like it.

Grocer Arkwright: Tell you what, Mrs Blewett, if you buy a box, and you don’t like the taste of it, you bring it back and I will reimburse you in full*. What have you got to lose?

A clever approach that ticks several important boxes.

It addresses the right audience — a loyal customer who already shows an interest in the new product. It does so very timely, too: at the moment the interest is expressed, and at the moment the purchase would be made. And it allows the customer to try the product at their convenience and in the familiar setting of their home.

Mean looking doll in a box stating “Try me!”
Mean looking doll in a box stating “Try me!”
Try me if you dare! (source)

Furthermore, the offer of a refund is unconditional, which eliminates uncertainty or lack of clarity on the customer’s part, so there is no apparent risk. However, at the same time, the arrangement comes with friction: the customer needs to make the effort of returning the box. Only those customers who end up not enjoying the product, and who go to that trouble, will cost the grocer money. Until then, he does actually keep their money (the alternative approach, giving the customer the box for free and only charging them if they don’t bring it back would be a lot messier). Finally, even if the customer doesn’t take up the offer, Mr Arkwright’s reputation will have been improved in her eyes: what a decent chap!

In specific retail segments, trying products before buying them is quite common: we can leaf through a book or try out a battery-operated toy in the store, or even sleep on a new mattress in our own bed for 100 days. But most prominent are probably clothes and shoes. Trying these in the shop may be trickier while pandemic rules rule, so we see try-at-home here too (as is often the case with online sales as well), despite the added inconvenience. Augmented reality technology is being used to replicate the physical shop experience, but it remains to be seen whether that will make consumers give up what is clearly an important and valued component in the purchase decision.

Product trials can be equally effective for consumables, just like in the time of Mr Arkwright, the grocer. Here, technological trickery is of little utility, though: the consumer must consume.

1990s Typhoo advertising poster for QT instant tea
1990s Typhoo advertising poster for QT instant tea
Not the most persuasive slogan, perhaps (source: V&A museum)

For major product (re)launches, manufacturers sometimes run large, nationwide campaigns. About 30 years ago, Typhoo, a big British brand of tea, distributed free samples to every mailbox in the UK of their QT product, instant black tea with whitener. The campaign was not a success: instant tea, in contrast with instant coffee, is still very much a minority interest. Was the product not good, or did the phrase that sounded persuasive when Arkwright said it ( “What have you got to lose?”) not quite work as an advertising slogan? Who knows.

The challenge of the personal touch

One thing is clear: to encourage customers to try a product at home, supermarkets cannot practically adopt the personal Arkwright touch. Sure, for edible products, customers can be given a (literal) taster at a promotional display stand, but it is not a match to using it in the wild. Furthermore, not all food or drink is suitable for such in-shop sampling, and for household or personal care categories like washing up liquid or deodorant it is entirely impossible. So, the “Try me!” notice on my breakfast cereal looks like it is their attempt at translating Arkwright’s tactic.

The general principle is certainly the same: buy and take home to try, if you don’t like it, return and get your money back. Yet it raises a couple of intriguing questions.

Snapshot from the back of a cereal box
Snapshot from the back of a cereal box

To whom is the message addressed? People like me, who spot it while they are consuming the very product (and who may well be regular buyers), are obviously not going to try it. Could it change my purchasing behaviour in another way? Perhaps they offer the same deal for another product, one I don’t already buy. But I am seeing the message while I am having my breakfast, so it is not very timely. Will I remember to look for the same notice on another product when I am in the store? (No.) Does noticing the message change my perception of the retailer? (Perhaps a tiny bit, but will that make me frequent it more, or buy more? No.)

What about the actual target audience — people who don’t already buy the product? Will they see a message that is hidden on the back of the box, among the general nutrition bumf? Hardly salient. Can you imagine this scenario?

Customer (thinking): Ooh, an apricot wheat cereal. Sounds interesting, but I’m not sure I’d like it. But why don’t I just inspect the box to see if that can help me make up my mind? I have nothing better to do than look at the packaging of products I don’t know.

(Customer manipulates box and reads the front, sides and, eventually, back of the pack.)

Customer (muttering): …saturated fats… without milk…, Hello, what’s that? “Try me”? Well whaddaya know, if I buy this product, I can return it for a full, yes, a full refund if I don’t love it! In the trolley!


Now, one might argue that it doesn’t do any harm to put the message on the back of the box. Perhaps there will be the odd customer who behaves along the lines of this scenario. Maybe some others decide against trying the cereal, but still leave with an infinitesimally enhanced perception of the retailer’s brand image. It’s possible.

I am willing to be proven wrong with figures of how many people are persuaded by the “Try me!” message, but until then, I will hang on to my Bayesian prior that the effect of the message on Sainsbury’s overall sales is negligible. Supermarkets can do many things, and they can do many things better than grocer Arkwright. But when it comes to persuade customers to try a new product, I am pretty sure that grocer Arkwright’s personal touch, making the explicit promise directly to the consumer, gets the upper hand.

* People familiar with Albert Arkwright, the central character in the sitcom Open all hours played by the late Ronnie Barker, will immediately realize that the dialogue is wholly fictitious.

Originally published at on September 11, 2020.

Thank you for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thanks!

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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