(First posted in 2017 and subsequently published by Soundview Magazine. Now repeated because the message is timeless and warrants revisiting).

I was recently dismayed to discover that my favourite art supply store was no longer offering free cookies. My first stop in the store had always been the cookie plate intended for the pleasure of customers, art class attendees, and staff. Now, sadly, it has disappeared.

As an ardent student of small business management (and a cookie addict), I conducted inquiries. It turned out that the owner had canned the cookie plate because she felt that some people were overdoing it a bit. I should mention that these were not gourmet cookies. At about $3.00 for a pack of 44 cookies they were among the cheapest on the shelf at the nearby grocery store.

But cookie quality is not the point—we liked them regardless. I think I can speak for the customers, art students, and staff alike when I say that it is the gesture we miss, not just the cookies. Something for free (doesn’t matter what it is or how small it is) gives pleasure and creates a feeling of well-being. It says: “Thanks for visiting my store and thanks for doing business with me.” It reflects well on the business and is therefore smart business.

So I think the art store owner, who in every other way is an astute business person, has made a mistake. For no more than $90 a month (less than a dinner out for two) she has backed away from an opportunity to bolster goodwill among her customers, students, and staff. And it’s not about the momentary pleasure of a single cookie; it’s about the lasting impression. It’s about the gesture.

As for the over-doing-it concern, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to control consumption by putting out just one pack a day. For anyone arriving after the cookies for the day were all gone, a plate with a few crumbs still speaks to generosity, whereas, no plate at all, does the opposite.

So how can I be so sure of this and why does it matter? Well, in addition to knowing how I feel about receiving free cookies, for about twenty years I witnessed the impact of my business including cookies or chocolate bars with every shipment. As ridiculous as it might seem to some that a mere chocolate bar could do this, it differentiated us from the competition and created a lot of goodwill. Cookie-like gestures may sound like airy fairy nonsense to some hard-nosed business owners—but it’s not. People are quirky, and part of that quirkiness is the pleasure of receiving something for nothing, particularly something to eat.

What does your small business do to take advantage of this quirkiness? If you’re not making cookie-like gestures for what you perceive to be economic reasons, your small business may be committing false economy.