At first glance, all looks as it should be in the Sample Lab, a bright, airy store in the heart of Tokyo's trendiest shopping district: products on one side, eager customers on the other and, in between, the polite, immaculately turned-out staff. But notice the odd details. For a start, most of the products lined up on the shelves have no price tags, and there are no cash registers or store detectives. Then there are the shoppers, who line up quietly in numbered lines before dashing for the shelves like greyhounds from a trap. Rather than assist, the staff get out of the way. Oddest of all, those customers walk home with their booty absolutely free. A shop that gives everything away doesn't sound lucrative, but Sample Lab is a major success story, claims Melposnet, the company that runs it. 'We're delighted at the reaction,' says spokeswoman Erika Awata, who proudly boasts that more than 40,000 people have come here to grab everything from sake to socks since the shop opened in the Harajuku district four months ago. What's the catch? Melposnet is a marketing agency that set up Sample Lab to get feedback and generate interest in new products for its clients. The Lab is membership only and customers can be asked to fill out questionnaires on what they have taken, which are then sent to the companies that have donated the freebies. Some have dubbed this system 'tryvertising'. Consumer trends company trendwatching.com, which claims to have coined that awkward term, says behind the new approach lies a dramatic loss of consumer faith in traditional advertising. 'So introducing yourself and your products by letting people experience and try them out first, is a very civilised and effective way to show some respect,' explains the firm's website. Sample Lab's visitors - more than 80 per cent of them young women - seem happy to take part in the experiment. 'Most of the stuff don't even have a questionnaire attached,' says Yoko Hashitate, laughing. A university student on her fifth visit to the shop, she's got a basket containing bottled water, canned coffee and bath salts. 'You don't have to pay for anything. At first, I didn't understand the system and thought it was a trick.' Her friend Emiko Amano says they drop into the shop on their way home from class. 'I wear contacts, so contact lens cleaners and makeup are my favourite products, but sometimes there are really surprising things on the shelves, like nice food. But you have to be quick to spot them.' How does the shop work? First-time visitors pay a 1,000 yen (HK$70) annual membership fee and a 300 yen registration, earning them a two-dimensional barcode on their mobile phones, which is scanned when they come to shop. Customers must be over the age of 15, able to read Japanese and own a mobile phone, according to the rules on the shop's website. Once here, they wait in line for one of seven daily grab sessions, and they can take only five items at a time. Feedback is rewarded by a points system, which accumulate to allow more samples to be taken home: the more you come, the more you can take ... within limits. 'We try to keep visits to two a week,' says a store assistant. During a lull in the shopping on a weekday, the assistants restack shelves with cans of green tea, moisturiser, packs of honey, fruit granola and Swiss marshmallows, bottles of sake, and even cigarettes. Some products are new and unavailable in conventional shops. Others can be bought for less than 1,000 yen, but lurking in among them are expensive items, such as a 11,550-yen tub of night cream. The customers hover quietly on the sidelines. At a signal from the staff, they rush the shelves and grab everything in sight. The night cream is among the first to go. Some customers have full baskets and look like veterans. 'The only problem is the queuing,' one middle-aged woman laments, declining to give her name. 'But I have lots of time so I can come often.' A key ingredient of the enterprise is creating buzz about new products, says Awata. 'Some of the items have questionnaires attached but most don't. The companies rely on word of mouth and internet blogging to get the word out about what they're selling. Young women, in particular, often tell their friends about stuff they like.' She points to two rooms at the back of the store for interviews and product sampling, where visitors can sit and try on makeup. 'Customers in department stores usually feel under some pressure to buy when they're trying on products, but here they can relax and enjoy themselves. They give better feedback in this environment,' Awata says. Melposnet came up with the idea for the Sample Lab after growing tired of trying to do street surveys. Shoppers dislike being stopped and asked for their opinions, the firm says, and the product data mined is often imprecise and unreliable. Companies routinely distribute samples so Melposnet approached them for a steady supply, offering the carrot of detailed feedback from satisfied customers. 'The practice of giving something away - called omake - is embedded in Japanese business culture,' says Yuko Kawanishi, a sociologist at Tokyo Gakugei University. 'This is an expansion of that, but moving it out of the streets and into a single store. It's another way of persuading people to come back for more.' Melposnet's clients say they're more than satisfied with the results. 'It's very useful for us because it allows us to target specific groups of people, especially young female clients,' says a spokesperson for coffee giant UCC. 'The other advantage is that we get very specific feedback directly from those people who visit the shop. I think you'll find most businesses taking part in the Sample Lab experiment will say the same.' Food and beverage maker Nihon Shokken is also happy with the arrangement, noting that the store provides valuable publicity for a new mineral water. 'We can get customers' opinions at first-hand and speed up sales and product development,' says a spokesperson. 'Also, we're able to expand our knowledge of our customers' profiles, including their range and age.' Feedback like that has encouraged Melposnet to expand its Harajuku operation into Osaka and Nagoya, and may venture further afield, depending on how those stores perform, says the firm. Could tryvertising be the way of the future? 'We don't see any reason why this idea can't spread far and wide,' says Awata.