How It (Really) Works

YES, CUSTOMERS can get free products every day, and yes, they really are free. But to avoid mass pillaging, Sample Lab! International has instituted rules that allow the shop to operate more like a store than an episode of Supermarket Sweep.

People join Sample Lab! and pay a nominal fee (about $10 a year) to keep their membership active. They can then enter the store once a day and take home up to five products. After trying those products, they have to complete surveys, which can be done from a computer or a cell phone, before being allowed back into the store.

Sample Lab! members can help themselves to anything and everything on the shelves. Chefs come in to prepare samples of foods being marketed. Powder rooms are provided for cosmetics testing. Those shopping for exercise equipment -- or looking for a place to go for a quick jog -- can test treadmills. Vespa debuted a new scooter at the store, allowing people to take it for a quick spin.

“The range of products is so wide and so vast, we could be here for a couple of days listing off everything we have,” James says.

The store in Japan usually has about 300 items at a time, and the inventory turns over constantly.

Aside from a handful of Sample Lab! employees who are there to keep an eye on the store (they don’t really have to worry about shoplifting), the floor is mainly crowded with shoppers and marketers doing a delicate dance to create a product that makes everyone happy.

“In challenging times, brands still have to keep moving and changing or they start to shrink,” Roberts says. “To do that effectively, they have got to have smart and valuable insights into what consumers really want.”

Obviously, giving things away for free is a good start, but more importantly, studies show that shoppers want an intimate link to the products they buy, James says. Offering thousands of people a role in developing those products creates brand loyalty that no advertising can.

Kana Nishida, a Sample Lab! member in Tokyo, Japan, considers filling out the questionnaires a privilege, not a chore. A frequent visitor, she has discovered a variety of new favorites through try-vertising.

“Some products have not been released yet, and it means that they really want me to share my feedback,” she says. “I get so excited wondering if my ideas affect the product that I can’t wait to see it released in the store.”