Where’s the Line Between Free Samples and Shoplifting?

image via Colors Magazine

image via Colors Magazine


Spear one cheese cube with a toothpick and you’re sampling. Are you pilfering if you snare a dozen? Is it shoplifting if you dump the plateful in a produce bag for later?
How much is too much? Exactly what constitutes a free sample?
These are the questions at the heart of a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.

The plaintiff, 68 year-old Erwin Lingitz, went into the Cub Goods supermarket in White Bear Township, Minnesota to pick up a prescription. He helped himself at two un-hosted displays offering free samples of lunch meat, and then packed some up for his wife who was waiting outside in the car. He was arrested by store security as he exited the store.

An attorney for the supermarket chain itemized his haul: “Plaintiff had approximately 14-16 packets of soy sauce along with one plastic produce bag containing 0.61 pounds for [sic] summer sausage and another plastic produce bag containing 0.85 pounds of beef stick in his pockets,” She also claims that the store’s manager had spotted Mr. Lingitz on previous occasions filling plastic produce bags “with 10-20 cookies from the kids’ cookie club tray, which specifically limits the offer to one free cookie per child.”

The supermarket calls it theft, arguing that “The plaintiff violated societal norms and common customer understanding regarding free sample practices.” In an interview with the Twin Cities’ Pioneer Press, Lingitz’s wife, Frankie defends her husband with the statement: “Something is either free or it isn’t. You can’t arrest somebody for thievery if it is free.”

Mr. Lingitz is hardly standing alone on that slippery slope between sampling and stealing.
There’s the Definitive Guide for Food Grazing (for free) at Costco, and another site that shows you how to save $2,000 a year in grocery bills and grow your net worth by eating free samples. And of course who among us has never popped a grape in their mouth in the produce aisle?

Mr. Lingitz is suing for $375,000 in damages claiming that the arrest was a violation of his civil liberties and that he sustained injuries during it. His case hinges on whether it was a lawful arrest, which will depend on whether or not the judge considers it a crime to take too many free samples. It’s potentially a landmark case for retailers since there is currently no legal definition for free samples.

The store’s defense is that free samples are governed by “a common-sense rule.”
A few try-before-you-buy grapes is on one side of it, while stuffing a T-bone inside your raincoat is clearly on the other side. The question is, where does 1.46 pounds of ‘free’ lunch meat fall on the side of common sense?



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