UAE to Try the Tryvertisers: Anthony James’s Sample Central

There was very little that could prepare me for my meeting with Anthony James. No one told me, for instance, that he was formerly the key executive in strategy, concept and development of IBM’s global eBusiness division since the mid-1980s. Or that having moved into the world of retail and branding, he became the creative driving force behind 3.5 billion McDonald’s Happy Meal Toys and countless other global brands that include the likes of Kellogg’s, Disney, Nestle and Coca-Cola.

Yesterday morning he was just a person with a compelling start-up in the papers that my colleague tipped me off to. “Maybe you should call this guy”, said Claudia, a colleague of mine, after hearing that I was searching for my next Middle East entrepreneur profile.

And so walking into this interview I was entirely unaware of his larger-than-life professional profile,  instead innocently focused on this compelling concept called Sample Central, which is scheduled to open in Dubai in November 2011.

Interestingly enough, the premise behind Sample Central screams louder to me than any Happy Meal toy or IBM eBusiness division has ever been able to in recent memory.

Launched in 2007, it was first retail business concept to let shoppers take products off the shelf for free for a small annual membership fee. Or more precisely, its members are allowed to “sample” up to 5 items per visit so long as they give a certain amount of information back to the brands via short surveys. There are also many consumer products in the store that can’t be taken home, like televisions, fridges, even cars, that the members can fully explore and interact with, and complete the surveys inside the stores themselves on intuitive touch pads or netbook.

I put the word “sample” in quotes because as you can see from this shopper’s basket below, each sample reaches the actual size of a regular SKU at the supermarket. Some people may think that making a trip to the store for 5 items may be insignificant, but thinking about it in a different way I realize that for an annual membership of 100 AED, I gain the ability to take 5 regular sized products off the shelf per day in exchange for my opinion about it. I could probably feed myself for free for the rest of my life should I carefully chose which 5 products to take off the shelf each day!

Anthony James uses an interesting word to describe this phenomenon: its “tryvertising”, in a pointed effort to highlight the limitations of advertising which James feels is fatally 2-dimensional.

Certainly the 100 AED annual fee per member isn’t going to be the main source of revenue for Sample Central. James told me that almost 80% of those customers who try products at Sample Central actually convert their habits. Thus, Sample Central’s revenue stream and existence may be owed to this phenomenon as more and more brands use Sample Central as a radically different method of converting deeply engrained consumer habits.

Tryvertisers - basket of five goods

I’ve spend some time around supermarkets in Dubai, and I know that at certain times, they can be quite frenetic places. I find it quite exciting that Sample Central will be opening a retail store in Dubai.

Because there is a time limit of 1 hour to your shopping experience at Sample Central, it gives you enough time to browse around,  select your 5 items, experience a few in-store products that are of interest to you, fill out a few surveys, each of which may have 10-12 questions and provide brands with your true opinion about those products.

I just hope that the store’s floors and walls are built out of something soft and bouncy as I expect to get thrashed around a bit between the types of consumers who seem to gain 200% strength anytime they drive a shopping cart down a supermarket aisle.

Tryvertisers - shopping at Sample Central

So am I worried for Anthony James given all the little questions I have about this experience, and all the ways it could go wrong? “We’ve spend 3 years getting the business model right, and in the process we’ve seen 6 copycats try and fail to replicate our success,” says James with a little bravado all too fitting of someone with his resume.

By entering the UAE, Sample Central will have secured business with nearly 20 Master Franchisors countries around the world, from Japan to Brazil.

Everything indeed would seem wonderful, except that I can’t help but notice that Sample Central doesn’t really tap into the power of online platforms that could replicate similar tryvertising experiences. “This is our next big step” James assures me.

It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize how tryvertising techniques yielding valuable consumer-generated content or “insights” could be leveraged online in all sorts of ways that even the real-world can’t quite pull off. After all, when a company like Sample Central’s main lifeblood runs on customer information, reducible to 1’s and 0’s, it is only a matter of time until a similar battle runs its course online.

That said, tryvertising may perhaps be ideally experienced in the real world – especially in a country such as the UAE where online retailers struggle to compete for the minds and hearts of consumers who prefer to transact in a fancy mall. Sample Central will be bringing its experience to a retail location near you, the same way the McDonald’s Happy Meal brought a Disney toy directly to your child’s Happy Meal box. I wouldn’t expect anything less genius and opportune from the mind of Anthony James.