Rita’s Italian Ice is a Pennsylvania-based company that sells its icy treats through franchise locations on the East Coast and several states in the Midwest and West.

Every year on the first day of spring, Rita’s gives away full-size Italian ices to its customers. For free. No coupon or other purchase required. It’s their way of thanking their customers and launching the season (most Rita’s are only open during the spring and summer months).

Wawa, another Pennsylvania company, celebrated 50 years in business with a free coffee day in April.  

Companies are giving their products away for free! What a fantastic development for consumers! I patronize both of these businesses, and yet, on their respective free give-away days, I didn’t participate. I like water ice (Philadelphia’s term for Italian ice) and I really like coffee. So what’s the problem?

In the case of Rita’s, the franchise location near me has about 5 parking spots, which on a normal day is too few. I was concerned about the crowds. On the Wawa give-away day, I forgot about it as the day wore on. That made me wonder what other people do when they learn that retailers are giving away their products. So, having access to a web-based research panel (a huge perk of my job), I asked 485 people about it. And here are the 4 things I learned:

1) Most people aren’t aware of any free-give away days.  

A quarter of our panelists said they were aware of a free give-away in the past 6 months.

2) Most people don’t take advantage of the give-aways they learn about.

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3) The top reason for not partaking is that they aren’t interested in the product.

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Apparently giving stuff away for free isn't enough - you have to give away the "right" stuff!

4) The give-away doesn’t seem to have a major impact on subsequent patronage.

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Among all the people surveyed, only 1% said that they are patronizing the establishment more than they did before the give-away. It's 5% among those aware of the give-away, and 21% among those who participated in it. So there is some type of positive effect, but it seems to be limited to participants - and only a minority of them.

Keep in mind that these results are across a wide range of retailers and could be vastly different for specific establishments in certain geographic areas. Given the cost of advertising, staffing up for the day, and of course the product itself, I’d be interested in hearing any success stories (or failures). Perhaps some marketing research is in order for retailers considering jumping on the give-away bandwagon.