Marketers Wonder: How Will It Play in Portland?

To test organic bread, chia seed drinks, a store becomes a focus group with free samples

Visitors at SamplingLab in Portland, Ore., fill out marketing questionnaires about free samples they have taken. Product-makers hope to gather data about how young consumers feel about their goods. PHOTO: LEAH NASH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Visitors at SamplingLab in Portland, Ore., fill out marketing questionnaires about free samples they have taken. Product-makers hope to gather data about how young consumers feel about their goods. PHOTO: LEAH NASH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By KATY MULDOON

July 15, 2015 1:58 p.m. 

Portland, Ore.

Michelle Torres has strong feelings about a new variety of organic bread. It fell apart as she slathered on peanut butter. Toasted, though, it held deliciously firm.

The 27-year-old got the loaf of Dave’s Killer Bread at SamplingLab, a store here that functions like a corporate focus group. It gives customers free samples in exchange for their opinion.

After completing an online questionnaire about taste, texture and other features, Ms. Torres could sample other products such as crunchy bean snacks, blackberry chia drinks or maraschino cherries.

Organic and emerging brands want to test their products just like the big makers of laundry detergent and cereal have been doing since Procter & Gamble Co. popularized the focus group in the 1940s. Today, it is difficult to gather customers in neighborhood kitchens to sample knives or blenders, but it is easy to tweet an invite to young people to meet up at a pop-up cafe or beer garden for a gourmet food tasting.

Where best to find a target audience of consumers in their 20s and 30s who eat organic, are passionate about where their chickens were raised, and are well-versed in the flavors of almond milk: Portland. The city has developed a reputation for its restaurants and as a leader of food trends, and as a punch line for artisanal eating.

Mamma Chia drink is one of the products available for free samples at SamplingLab in Portland, Ore.  PHOTO: LEAH NASH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Mamma Chia drink is one of the products available for free samples at SamplingLab in Portland, Ore. 
PHOTO: LEAH NASH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Product sampling is on the upswing as a marketing tool, says Bonnie Carlson, president and chief executive officer of the Brand Activation Association, a marketing industry trade group. The association recently added a sampling council, given that megabrands such as Kimberly-Clark Corp. and Coca-Cola Co.have increased their sampling efforts.

Consumers can also subscribe to get free samples of everything from detergent to cheese directly from brands. Subscribers can receive products from companies such as Birchbox, a New York beauty products sampling company, or PINCHme, a digital sampling hub where such companies asKellogg Co. and Hallmark Cards Inc. have doled out products. Chicago-based Freeosk has installed automated sampling dispensers in Sam’s Clubs across the country. Sam’s Club members scan loyalty cards in the kiosks and out pop samples. In return, brands get information about who tries, and later buys, their products.

SamplingLab was founded by Jeff Davis, a marketing consultant, who figured a store setting with a lounge area would be less expensive for companies to test products and marketing than traditional focus groups. He opened in December on the city’s north side, in a gentrifying neighborhood where bike traffic and tattoo ink are common. Though anyone can browse the shelves and try products, the store chiefly aims to place brands into the hands of young adults who gravitate to the area. In its early months, it has stocked mostly food but expects to add personal care, health and beauty products and household goods.

During its four-week promotion at SamplingLab, Dave’s Killer Bread gave away 600 full loaves of white bread, so customers could make sandwiches or French toast at home at their leisure. At last count, says product manager Dan Letchinger, the company had received more than 400 responses.

 

Jeff Davis, a marketing consultant, founded SamplingLab after hearing from food industry clients the tricky task of amassing consumer research. PHOTO: LEAH NASH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Jeff Davis, a marketing consultant, founded SamplingLab after hearing from food industry clients the tricky task of amassing consumer research. PHOTO: LEAH NASH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Because the surveys are sent to the brands’ executives, “it’s almost like having a little bit of power,” says Ms. Torres, an administrative assistant at an insurance brokerage.

Mr. Davis, 57, says he developed the idea for SamplingLab after repeatedly hearing from food industry clients about the difficulties, cost and sometimes nebulous payoff of traditional consumer research and product sampling. His other business, Food Fete, arranges media events, mostly in New York, for food and beverage companies.

SamplingLab’s loft-like space feels part grocery, part lounge. In its first six months, about 7,600 consumers joined; 75% are age 34 or younger. People linger in the seating area and compare notes on products they’ve tried. Couples stroll through on dates. Recently, Mr. Davis has allowed groups to meet there.

Marketers know that it pays to offer free samples right where people live. That is why pharmaceutical companies stock physicians’ cupboards with samples and grocery stores set out tables for a nibble of the latest cracker or scoop of yogurt.

SamplingLab shoppers are invited to sip Portland’s beverage of choice, beer, gratis, while selecting from shelves stocked with full-size packages of snack food, candy, condiments, olive oil, soup, dried fruit, health drinks, soda and other foods. The store doesn’t have a cash register, but there is a catch. Customers can’t try the next product until they’ve completed a questionnaire about the last, giving brands their two cents, sometimes in great, descriptive detail, on flavor, texture, packaging and what they’d be willing to pay.

The limit is one product a day, Mr. Davis says. “We’re not here,” he says, “to stock people’s pantries.”

SamplingLab members drink a beverage in the lounge after browsing the shelves of free products samples. PHOTO: LEAH NASH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

SamplingLab members drink a beverage in the lounge after browsing the shelves of free products samples.
PHOTO: LEAH NASH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

When lots of new products are stocked, Zack Hellmann, 26, swings through a couple of times a week. He hangs out, chats with other customers and sometimes takes home a keeper of a product he’d never noticed at his grocery store, like the Mamma Chia brand vitality drink he sampled. At $4 a pop, he found the drinks expensive but so tasty he says he’ll now treat himself.

U.S. shoppers, age 18 to 34, account for an estimated $1.3 trillion in direct annual spending, according to a 2013 survey by the Boston Consulting Group’s Center for Consumer and Customer Insight.

Early this year, Seattle’s Redhook Ale Breweryhad its new Seedy Blonde Apple Ale packaged and ready to ship to distributors when staffers’ concerns surfaced about the taste. Karmen Olson, the brewery’s brand manager, didn’t have time to pull together in-depth research, so she asked Mr. Davis on a Thursday, if SamplingLab could gather feedback fast.

The brewery delivered four cases to SamplingLab. Mr. Davis used Facebook to announce the sampling opportunity and customers spilled in.

By Sunday evening, Ms. Olson says, SamplingLab had synthesized the results of surveys completed by 84 beer tasters. Monday, she told the brewery’s leadership team that the feedback showed drinkers expected something different, based on the packaging, than what they got in the beer.

As a result, she says, Redhook asked its wholesalers to explain more clearly to stores what exactly the beer tastes like, so retailers can describe the Seedy Blonde Apple Ale to customers. The brewer next year plans to adjust its packaging to emphasize beer over cider flavor.

“It was a quick way for us to gut check our instincts and to be able to make decisions based on facts,” Ms. Olson says.

 

SamplingLab is in a Portland, Ore., neighborhood known for its bike traffic.  PHOTO:GETTY IMAGES

SamplingLab is in a Portland, Ore., neighborhood known for its bike traffic. 
PHOTO:GETTY IMAGES

Typically, companies place their products in SamplingLab for 30 to 45 days. They pay Mr. Davis’ company about $2,000 to help them craft questionnaires and to analyze the results.

Some products are about to hit the market or are new on the shelves. Katherine Viale, a 25-year-old pharmacist and a SamplingLab regular, didn’t know about Portland-based seafood meal-maker Fishpeople until she plucked a pouch of its smoked salmon chowder off the shop’s shelf earlier this year. She is a picky fish eater, demanding wild-caught, sustainably harvested seafood. The chowder’s salmon wasn't only that, she says, but also delicious.

Customer Margot Moore discovered Better Bean Co.’s red beans at SamplingLab.

“I’m not one of those people that just eats any old thing,” says Ms. Moore, 70. The beans, though, were such a winner that when she found them on sale in a supermarket she nearly bought out the stock. “I went nuts over them,” she says. “They tasted totally homemade.”