• Image about Sample Lab

The best way to get customers into your store? Give away all your products.

CONSUMERS HAVE STARTED FEELING ABOUT SHOPPING MALLS the same way investors do about subprime mortgages. Around the world, personal savings have skyrocketed, leaving retailers with the overwhelming problem of trying to lure shoppers back into stores.

Now one company has a novel idea that seems bound to succeed in these tough economic times: It’s giving away the store.

Sample Lab! International invites customers in to try anything on its shelves, and most of the products can be taken home without charge. Consider it “try-vertising.” Of course there’s a catch -- shoppers must fill out a questionnaire for each product they take. But the effort is well worth it to have a day of shopping yield a bottle of sake, laundry detergent, and the latest single from a hot musician without your having to spend a dime.

“The concept of going into a shopping mall and being able to shop absolutely free, exchanging no money whatsoever, is unique,” says Anthony James, Sample Lab!’s global general manager. “Nothing is behind glass. You can try, touch, or taste anything in the store.”

Fearing copycats, James is cagey about sharing Sample Lab!’s business plan, though he says the store serves not only as a dream supermarket for shoppers but also as a giant lab for companies needing to test new products.

Corporations, from electronics manufacturers to pasta makers, place their wares on the shelves of Sample Lab! and wait for customers to take them for a test-drive. The customer feedback then allows the companies to refine flavor, packaging, and anything else testers suggest on the short questionnaire they must fill out. Asking for consumer feedback will also build brand loyalty, businesses hope.

“You can try to feel products in ways which visual media -- TV, newspapers, magazines, websites -- never realize,” explains Nishida Yukihira, a spokesperson for Lion Corporation, one of Sample Lab!’s biggest clients. “We can arrange the displays ourselves in whatever way we like so that we can put concentration on our brand image in a way that supermarkets never do.”

After a year of planning, Sample Lab! opened its first store in the landmark “Iceberg” building in Tokyo, Japan, in July 2007. On opening day, the line to get in stretched three blocks -- and traffic hasn’t slowed much since then.

Every day, the store hosts about 700 eager shoppers ready to get their mooch on, the kind of foot traffic even a New Jersey mall dreams of.

“We’ve been approached by major consortiums who build shopping malls all over the world, from Taipei to L.A., saying, ‘We want you in our mall because we see the draw you have with consumers,’ “ James says.

After eight months of tweaking the store model in real conditions, Sample Lab! began franchising, opening a second store in Seoul, South Korea. The company now seems ready to explode around the globe -- it’s received written interest for franchises in 159 countries.

James said the business will likely expand into at least six additional countries by the end of 2009, including the United States (where it could possibly open under a different brand name) and England, and outside experts believe there is very little that can stop Sample Lab!’s growth.

“I believe that the Sample Lab! idea is founded in a profound understanding of human beings,” says Kevin Roberts, worldwide CEO of marketing giant Saatchi & Saatchi. “If someone has a chance to touch and hold something, they are more likely to buy it and to pay a premium for it. That’s a powerful reason to believe that sampling opportunities like Sample Lab! can attract new customers and gather insights from their responses.”