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Marie Chevrier, CEO and founder of Sampler is photographed in Hudson, Quebec, on July 14, 2020.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

For the past seven years, Marie Chevrier Schwartz has pushed the idea that brands should take sampling online, where they could more effectively target consumers through her internet platform instead of handing out packets to random passersby.

Her Toronto startup, Sampler App Inc., had some success, signing up packaged goods giants including Unilever NV and Nestlé SA, and mailing their samples to interested consumers. Cosmetics giant L’Oréal SA, a client, even featured Ms. Chevrier Schwartz in its 2018 annual report.

Then COVID-19 hit and in-person sampling became verboten. Grocery giants, including Costco, stopped offering freebies and consumers didn’t feel safe testing cosmetics in-store. Brands didn’t know what to do. So they contacted Ms. Chevrier Schwartz.

“Like many companies we had a moment [early on] where we said, ‘This could go really, really badly or this could be really, really good,’” Ms. Chevrier Schwartz said in an interview. “We went pretty quickly from, ‘Uh-oh,’ to, ‘There’s an opportunity’... This is the upswing we were waiting for.”

Add digital sampling to the list of businesses, including e-commerce and virtual health care, that have seen a surge in fortunes as people have stayed home, making Ms. Chevrier Schwartz one of the rising stars of consumer marketing during the pandemic.

In April, 130 brands signed on to Sampler’s platform, up from 300 before that. Second-quarter sales jumped 35 per cent compared with the prior three months and are projected to stay at that rate through 2020. Consumers stuck at home – 2.2 million people have signed up – have interacted with Sampler’s platform to claim samples, review products or access discounts at more than twice the rate of a year earlier.

Sampler has also started offering to send samples for brands to retail buyers who can’t meet face-to-face for sales calls or product expos.

The company has also raised $4-million in venture capital from past backers StandUP Ventures and Business Development Bank of Canada, Factory LLC, Henkel AG & Co. KGaA, and new investor The51, a female-led Calgary investor group.

“I think of Sampler as a flywheel,” said Keith Caldwell, partner with Factory, a venture capital firm based in Bethlehem, Pa., specializing in packaged-goods startups that backed Sampler after it ran campaigns its companies. “The more customers they get on the platform, the more of a service it is to their audience, which is already very engaged. As the audience gets more engaged and larger, it brings more brands to the platform, which further engages the audience. They’re right in the beginning of that.”

In June, Sampler sent out 320,000 samples, as revenue soared 300 per cent over the same period a year ago.

Sampler’s customers and backers say the pandemic is hastening an established trend. The venture capital arm of German consumer goods giant Henkel invested in 2018 after Sampler delivered a successful campaign for its Persil detergent brand. While traditional sampling methods led to “conversion” of 1 per cent, half of Sampler’s customers tried the product, and 25 per cent later bought it, said Marius Swart, head of Henkel’s VC arm. “That is unheard of in the industry,” he said.

Mr. Swart led a $3-million financing in late 2018. “I believe this is Sampler’s moment.”

Hershey Co.‘s Canadian business used the platform to deliver 20,000 samples of a new chocolate bar to consumers in less than two weeks early this year – twice as fast as a typical sampling campaign. With few if any in-person sampling programs in store for at least the next year, “Sampler becomes a substitute for that,” said Mathieu Gamache, senior marketing manager with Hershey Canada

Ms. Chevrier Schwartz started Sampler in 2013, a year after leaving a job as account manager with advertising giant JWT. She’d become frustrated by the fact that it was difficult to follow up with consumers after they’d tried samples – a core component of marketing campaigns – figuring she could create more effective campaigns by gathering consumer data online and sending samples on behalf of brands to the most relevant customers.

Sampler is free for consumers to use; they create online accounts, providing personal data such as age, marital and employment status, along with preferences including favorite physical activities, hair and skin type, personal care habits and eating choices. They can then opt to receive boxes of brand samples sent by Sampler. Brands cover the costs of shipping and handling, plus a cut for the 25-person startup.

Mr. Swart said Sampler, with its opt-in data collection, delivered an effective solution for marketers after tough new digital privacy laws in Europe and California limited their ability to collect and use consumer data. Now, it has a chance to capture even more revenue by mining its trove of information, investors say.

“The next phase for Sampler will be to provide rich consumer insights and data,” StandUP managing director Michelle McBane said.

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