By Sarah Noorbakhsh
Product paradise in Tokyo’s consumer hot spot.
It’s often observed that Tokyo is a jungle of advertising, where the uninitiated are bombarded by the colorful sights and sounds of advertising mayhem while natives are all but deaf and blind to these siren calls. To combat the oversaturation, Japan’s kuchi komi, or word of mouth, culture is highly developed, with consumers turning to everything from their best friends to message boards on mobile Web sites to learn the ins and outs of the latest products.
Free samples have long been a gateway into word-of-mouth advertising, but the much talked about Sample lab! Takes the entire process to a new, highly organized level. Opened in July of last year in Harajuku’s iconic Iceberg Building, Sample lab! Plays off the idea that everyone loves something for nothing, and molds it into an effective marketing strategy known as “tryvertising.” Here in the stylish white confines of the store’s showroom floor, women in their 20s and 30s try the newest cosmetics, snacks, electronic gadgets and energy drinks.
The entrance opens up directly into the store’s exhibition area, where a range of products from sports drinks to the latest mini laptop eagerly await the attention of sample-hungry customers. Visitors can browse here or move into the “Salon” area and relax in a modern café-like setting. The “Powder Room” area gives young Tokyoites a more private area in which to primp and preen with the latest cosmetics and facial care products.
When customers find something that tickles their fancy, they have the option of purchasing a full-sized version of the product in-store, or taking home more samples— up to 10 depending on member status.
But with a volume of new products, all for free, the concept risks becoming a madhouse of freebie hunters and tourists. This problem is somewhat avoided by requiring membership registration—300 yen to join and 1,000 yen per year—a move that ups the exclusivity and makes crowds more manageable, but at a price low enough for even the most thrifty Harajuku girl. The criteria for membership are somewhat more dubious, however, as they must not only have a Japanese cell phone, but be able to read and complete surveys in Japanese regarding the products offered. It is the surveys that make the concept effective because, as Shoji Matsushita, executive director of Sample lab!’s parent company Mel-Pos Net puts it, “It’s great for gathering data because participants aren’t anonymous.”
As conventional advertising techniques are slipping into the stone age, marketing specialists are more aware than ever of the effectiveness, and increasing necessity, of hype and word-of-mouth advertising. Sample lab! Expertly exploits these kuchi komi techniques by tempting consumers with a dazzling array of the hottest and newest products—for free—in turn generating a buzz about the products. The store itself seems to have made its own foray into the world of hype, as a stroll through the Japanese blogosphere reveals a number of blogs exclusively talking about the store and the latest products on display.
While the company is rather hush about details regarding just how profitable this venture is, there have been rumors of offers from international companies who are interested in doing the same thing. For the time being, however, after riding their wave of popularity in Japan, in mid September Sample lab! Opened a second store in Seoul, Korea.