The Greatest Gifts of All: Gifts With Purchase

If you shop at department stores, or Sephora, you probably have a little drawer in the bathroom -- maybe in your vanity -- dedicated to the tiny bottles and jars and spritzers of samples. Or is that just me? (This drawer is also my home for the extra buttons, beads, and threads that come with new clothing that are never, ever used -- but if needed, I can replace a button on many sweaters I no longer own.) There was a time when I used to toss out these little samples, if they weren't for products or brands I already used but today these samples are my favorite things about shopping. And here's a little secret for you--at department stores, they practically throw them at you ... you just have to ask nicely.

These samples are how they persuade us we really do need that $165 La Mer Eye Balm that comes with the tiny "silver-tipped applicator"! The sample works so well, it makes you think: The full size comes with a tiny applicator of silver. I need that.

So maybe you don't need a $165 eye cream, but how great is it to try products you do use (or want, or need) before investing in a full-size bottle that could easily end up being a dud?


If you regularly shop at Sephora online you know that you get to choose samples whenever you make a purchase. The samples are different each time, but are usually some combination of scent, skin creams, and cleansers; the site even allows you to peruse that day's sample offers before you purchase. This is always a great time to stock up on samples from a company whose products you have always wanted to try; this is particularly useful for fragrance. Who wants to buy a full-size bottle of something without smelling and wearing it first? A small sample (.05 ounce is the norm) will last you at least a few days, giving you time to live in a scent before you commit to a huge bottle. My favorite Sephora brands to test: Tom Ford, Peter Thomas Roth, Perricone MD.

Another Sephora favorite is their yearly SPF Kit offering. It's already come and gone (I got mine!), but look for it next spring. Everything is designed to protect skin from strong summer rays, so there is SPF flying everywhere, but there are usually a few unexpected treats like a bonus-sized self-tanner, or an SPF Fresh Sugar lip balm.

Department Stores

A few weeks ago I shopped at Jo Malone at Neiman Marcus, where the "gift with purchase" (or GWP) was a large, orange tote bag. Needless to say I was thrilled with the bag -- it's perfect for the beach, or as a carry-on tote -- but I was even more excited to find a big handful of samples, wrapped in tissue paper, at the bottom of the bag once I got home.

So what if you aren't purchasing anything? When you are shopping at department store counters, the sales assistants (SAs) have drawers full of samples. Some SAs are more generous than others, but if you show a real enthusiasm for learning more about their products, they are usually happy to let you bring home samples to try. Not every counter offers samples, but perfume is always a good bet; perfume sellers know that perfume buyers want to smell something -- usually more than once, and usually on themselves (as opposed to a sample card) -- before investing. A bottle of Tom Ford Tobacco Vanille (my current "lust after" bottle) is $195 for 1.7 ounces. A girl might want to wear that once or twice before buying, to make sure it's for her.

Perfume counters tend to be quite generous with samples, as do skin care counters. Make-up doesn't always come so easily in sample sizes, as these tend to be produced with the intention of becoming GWP. The bottom line is: It never hurts to ask--so ask. If you are interested in purchasing perfume samples online, the online retailer LuckyScent is the place to go. They don't sell samples of everything they stock, but they do offer quite a bit--it's a great resource for perfume lovers.

Although not sold at department stores, nail polish brand Essie sells "minis" for some of their lacquers. I see them at the occasional Walgreens here in town (the one on Montrose near Westheimer is a likely suspect) or you can order them through Amazon.

GWP and Travel Size Samples: Don't Forget to Use Them

You might think, after a glance in my samples drawer, that I am some sort of weird hoarder of miniature things. The truth is I go through my samples (except my perfume samples, of which there are too many) fairly quickly. They are perfect for travel, so whether I'm going to Austin for the weekend or flying home to New York, I take a handful of samples with me instead of one, huge jar of cream or perfume. (Like I would only pack one huge jar of cream or perfume, anyway.) Samples are perfect for overpackers--you can overpack with glee! They are so tiny!

Sometimes you just don't like a sample, but don't toss it right away. Perhaps a facial cream reacts badly with your primer, or you don't love the smell; instead of throwing it away, use it as a hand or a foot cream. Samples are also fun to stash in birthday cards and gifts--just don't give your mom a sample of anti-aging cream for her fiftieth birthday or something, okay? Use some discretion.

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Christina Uticone