The down side of free samples

If you’ve had hassles trying to get component samples for a project, you can thank the efforts of a few enterprising students for making your life more complicated.

Here’s a microcosm of what has happened with sample parts: The folks at TexasLee-Teschler Instruments once had a liberal policy about giving out free samples of the firm’s ICs, even those that are relatively expensive. You could pretty much get a sample through the mail of even pricey chips from TI with few questions asked. According to TI internet marketing V.P. Dave Youngblood, a lot of students took advantage of TI’s largess, but perhaps not in the way the firm expected.

TI began to notice some of the ICs it gave out as samples showed up for sale on sites like eBay. The fact that a given chip is a sample is obvious, at least at TI, from markings on the package. So TI did some digging, Youngblood says. It turned out that a few individuals had what amounted to side businesses devoted to reselling sample chips. The practice was particularly widespread among students, Youngblood says. The scam was helped along by websites dedicated to giving tips on how to cajole sample chips out of suppliers.

Comments on these sites are still around and are illuminating. Despite numerous entreaties from posters not to abuse supplier free sample policies, it’s clear that a lot of site users do just that. “They shipped everything fast, without questions and absolutely free,” said one student in Germany. “I didn’t get any calls and they don’t seem to have any hard limit for request frequency, either,” said another. “If you are not a company … then use Independent Designer or Independent Consultant in the company name field,” was another tip.

TI wasn’t the only supplier labeled an easy mark. One poster commented about getting parts from Fairchild (now part of ON Semiconductor): “Their ‘Corporate Address’ checking system is fairly weak. You can successfully sneak past it using a disposable e-mail address …”

However, those days of easy access to freebie chips are pretty much gone. As Youngblood related at a recent meeting of the Electronic Components Industry Association, these sorts of shenanigans forced TI to tighten its policy on handing out samples. Indications are that other chip suppliers have gotten wise to bogus sample part requests and have become more cautious as well.

Of course, there may be a fine line between being played and accommodating customers. That becomes evident when talking to suppliers of passive components. Those we’ve asked don’t have the same black-market problems experienced by chip suppliers. They say the closest thing to abuse arises among customers needing to build prototypes. The typical scenario is where the usual limit is six samples and prototypes might need 12. “In this case, they may order six pieces from two different distributors or six pieces directly and the rest through a distributor,” says one.

The usual policy is to just send out the parts. “What we came to realize is that the cost of the samples is insignificant. The benefits of providing customers what they need is far more beneficial. But we still don’t have an anything-you-want policy. We still qualify each sample request,” says one distributor.

So the next time you call a supplier and get the third degree about a free sample, you can thank unscrupulous individuals trying to run a hustle for your extra trouble.

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