Back in mid-December I signed up for something that seemed too good to be true.

It was a “store” (in name only, really) called SamplingLab that had just opened up on Williams. Their website hooked me immediately — “Like free products? We thought so,” it teased. I mean, who the hell wouldn’t like free stuff? “There has to be a catch,” I thought… some sort of fine print? A membership fee? Anything? Nope. Just free stuff.

signageIn a nutshell, SamplingLab partners with a variety of brands to provide products for the consumer (A.K.A. you) to sample and provide feedback on. This isn’t just your typical “free sample” operation you’d see at Fred Meyer or New Seasons, though. SamplingLab urges brands to provide full-sized products for you to take home and use at your own rate, just as if you had purchased them at any traditional store. “That creates a better brand experience across the board,” says SamplingLab founder Jeff Davis.

Let’s rewind, though — 18 months to be exact, when the concept of SamplingLab was still in its nascent stages, more an idea than anything. With his background in food marketing and PR, Davis started noticing a gap in how product sampling was implemented and consumer feedback was gathered, and in hindsight, it makes me wonder how this hadn’t been conceived sooner.

“Large scale product sampling can be good for distributing a lot of samples in a short timeframe, and in-store sampling can drive immediate in-store sales, but both lack the direct consumer feedback component, which I believe is critically important when it comes to sampling.” – Jeff Davis, SamplingLab founder

justinsSo, let’s go back to that New Seasons example. If I’m walking into New Seasons and someone is peddling free samples of crackers at the front, you already know I’m gonna have a sample. To me though, the thought of this being an opportunity to give the brand feedback doesn’t even cross my mind — to me, it’s a free cracker, and that’s what makes it appealing.

 Of course, eating one free cracker isn’t really a fair way for me to judge all of the crackers. For example, maybe those crackers will be less appealing after I’ve eaten like 10 of them. Maybe my “honeymoon period” with those crackers will wear off and I’ll start seeing what I don’t like about them. Maybe I’ll need to start coating them in peanut butter just to deal with the taste. Those are all scenarios that I can’t anticipate just from trying that solitary cracker in New Seasons. So instead, I smile at the attendant and go about my shopping, unlikely to buy those crackers.

Until now. Because now I can go get a sleeve of those crackers at SamplingLab, and devour them on my own time, formulating a legitimate opinion as I go. After I’m done, I go to the link that SamplingLab emailed me as my “receipt” and fill out a brief survey about the product (which usually takes 2-3 minutes, if that), and boom, I’m ready for another sample.


SamplingLab founder, Jeff Davis

The survey model seems to be pretty successful. “We’re seeing that our members are taking the questionnaire seriously, often writing paragraphs of comments,” says Davis. And I’ll be honest — I’ve written a paragraph or two of feedback myself.

SamplingLab is one of the more innovative concepts I’ve come across in a while, and apparently the industry is having a weird time reacting to this curve ball. As Davis puts it, “There was — and still is — an education process for consumer packaged goods brands and the agencies that represent them to wrap their head around our concept because it’s so different than what they’re accustomed to doing.”

Luckily, the idea isn’t so innovative that it hasn’t caught on — for their launch on December 6th of last year, SamplingLab was able to convince 17 brands to sign on with them to provide the initial rounds of products for the consumers. And the response from those consumers? Overwhelming.

thumbs “We’ve only been open about six weeks, and in that timeframe, we’ve signed up 4,300 consumers as SamplingLab members. Membership is far ahead of where I’d thought we’d be this early, and the extremely positive feedback we’ve experienced from speaking with members in the store has been nothing short of mind-blowing. Consumers love the idea of having a voice back to the brands.”

As a matter of fact, Davis says this unexpected boom in popularity may have ended up being a bit of an early speed bump: “The main bump has been underestimating the consumer popularity, which depleted our product inventory to very low levels faster than we anticipated. We launched in early December, then the holidays hit, causing delays in being able to coordinate with brands to get additional inventory quickly or make new sales.” If you ask me, that’s one of the better problems a new business could have.

Right now, SamplingLab can only be found in Portland, but there may be plans for expansion in the future. According to Davis, “Our Portland store is essentially a ‘proof of concept’ store to see what works and what needs improvement.  If it achieves what we intend, the plan is to expand SamplingLab to other cities that embrace this unconventional concept.”


Sign Up For Sampling Lab Yourself! Here’s How:

  1. Fill out the SamplingLab membership application (which you can also do in-store if you prefer). Don’t worry — it’s free, and SamplingLab doesn’t share members’ personally identifiable information with the brands.
  2. After you’ve successfully become a member, head over to SamplingLab’s location and pick out whatever you want (I recommend Justin’s Peanut Butter Cups or a Hot Lips Soda).
  3. When you’re done with your product, complete the survey that was emailed to you upon checkout.
  4. Head back to SamplingLab and get more stuff!