SamplingLab shop views.

Almond butter. Sardines. Extra-virgin olive oil. At first glance, the newest North Williams storefront looks like yet another chic little artisan market. But there’s a twist: everything’s free.

Launched in December, SamplingLab aims to put locally made products in the hands of coveted millennial consumers through an intriguing marketing model. “Customers”—if that’s the right word—sign up online, then visit the shop. Basically, the strategy is to give young adults free swag in exchange for their responses to an online survey. (Targeted demographics aside, all adults are welcome to participate.)  

Visitors at SamplingLab in North Portland.

Visitors typically begin by grabbing a Widmer seasonal or Hot Lips soda (also free) from the well-stocked fridge. They then browse a living room–style space, perusing shelves of cocktail syrups, seafood curry, dog biscuits, and vegan body wash. Having made a selection, a customer approaches the front desk, where a SamplingLab employee scans the product and hands or e-mails the customer a survey.

And that’s it. No prices. No receipt. “We’ve all been to events where people hand out packages of food to 10,000 people and never know who they gave it to,” explains SamplingLab founder Jeff Davis, an experienced food PR consultant. “There’s a disconnect between sampling and feedback.” Brands pay SamplingLab for access to that input.

“People like autonomy and anonymity,” Davis says. “They’re less inclined to be honest if they feel compelled to give instant feedback. And it might take a couple bites to say, ‘Yeah, this works for me.’”

Within a month of opening, SamplingLab had already registered nearly 4,000 patrons. If the model proves successful, Davis hopes to expand to other marketing meccas, like Austin and Denver. Until then, Portland might be the only place in the country to embrace this particular five-finger discount.

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