Inside North Portland's SamplingLab, Where Everything Is Free

An innovative Williams Ave. business trades complimentary products for candid feedback.

By Tuck Woodstock December 17, 2014

Almond butter. Sardines. EVOO. Animal shampoo. At first glance, the newest North Williams storefront looks like yet another chicly curated artisan market. But there’s a twist: everything’s free.

“It’s so free we don’t even have a cash register,” quips the company’s website.

Launched Dec 6, SamplingLab exists to connect consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands with Millennial consumers through product sampling, customer feedback, and social media. Basically, it gives young adults free swag at the price of a quick internet survey.   

After signing up online, SamplingLab members are free to get started—typically by grabbing a Widmer seasonal or Hotlips soda (also free) from the well-stocked fridge. Drinks in hand, customers browse the store, a cozily decorated living room-style space complete with overstuffed armchairs, patterned rugs, warm wooden panels and soft lamp lighting. Members peruse shelves of cocktail syrups, seafood curry, dog biscuits, and vegan body wash, pausing to read more about the products on posted signs or the Bluetooth-operated iPhone app. Having made a selection, a customer approaches the front desk, where a SamplingLab employee scans the product and emails the customer a survey link.

And then… that’s it. No prices. No cash back. No printed receipt. 

Members are welcome to try their products in-store, but this makes more sense for some items (like protein bars and chips) over others (think hemp hearts, whole bean coffee, and hair conditioner). Besides, SamplingLab was founded on the premise that blindly thrusting tiny samples at shoppers is not the best way to elicit effective feedback. Instead, SamplingLab members are invited to pick out full sized products—some of which retail for upwards of $20—and use them in context at their own pace. Grabbed a bag of chocolate chips? Bake a batch or two of cookies and then fill out the survey. There’s no rush—not on the store’s end, at least.

Members are invited to return daily—first-time customers are only permitted one product per visit, but can earn their way to a three-sample limit by reliably completing the required reviews. The company already has a slew of local customers: only ten days after its grand opening, SamplingLab has accrued more than 800 members, mostly through referrals.

“We have many people who come in daily,” remarked a SamplingLab employee. "This is their morning stop." 

SamplingLab keeps about 20 brands in stock, many of them local, and plans to rotate offerings every 30–45 days—although, with a long waiting list of brands and a steady stream of consumers, those numbers could shift. Details aside, SamplingLab's premise has proved a smash hit among Millenials, allowing founder Jeff Davis a long-held sigh of relief:

"Wow, wow, wow. What an amazing first day at SamplingLab," reads a SamplingLab Facebook post. "Nothing but positive comments, which made me breathe a lot easier. Day one. The concept worked."

4019 N Williams Ave

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