When it comes to matters of eating, our world is choked with reviews.
Newspaper restaurant critics detail where they've eaten each week in their columns, either sending a restaurant's booking system into a bottlenecked oblivion or empty wasteland depending on whether they loved it or not. TripAdvisor has over 200 million reviews and opinions concerning some two million restaurants and there's a vast ocean of forthright food bloggers out there reviewing everything from Michelin-starred restaurants to bags of funky-flavoured popcorn they've been sent by an eager new PR company.
Anyone seeking reassurance about what to eat and when can log online and almost certainly find a review, somewhere, for any foodstuff or place serving food.
But what if you could read reviews of the place you shop at all the time, for your day-to-day groceries? What if Sainsbury's had a live, real-time comment board where shoppers could say what they were happy with, and what they weren't? What if your online reviews could actually pay for your shopping?
The first "free" supermarket (The Freemarket) is set to open in Denmark this weekend, in Copenhagen's Frederiksberg. The concept is known as "tryvertising"—not a new term in the trends world. Customers have to register online before going to the store and 'shopping' for whatever they need or fancy, with a limit of ten items per month. They must then try them out and review them, which they have to do within a certain timeframe, or else they'll be fined. The Freemarket will also charge shoppers 19 kroner (roughly £2 or $3.40) a month to cover physical operation costs.
Why do something like this? To an objective observer—someone (me) who has about as much understanding of consumer trend terminology as I do Bruce Jenner's face—isn't it just giving people free reign to try new stuff out? The only hindrance being that they have to write a little review afterwards?
Maybe not. Consumers wield enormous power—via social media, blogs, comment sections and customer feedback forums—these days. The internet can make or break a product and manufacturers have, obviously, been cottoning onto it for a few years. Most experienced online shoppers lose patience with pop-ups, ad banners and shrill commercials that pop up in the middle of ordering or reading something. It's a pain in the arse. So, "tryvertising", a culture where people are encouraged to try stuff out (cars, coffee, those ridiculous Graze boxes) before buying, is a new way of trying to reach people.
To an objective observer—someone (me) who has about as much understanding of consumer trend terminology as I do Bruce Jenner's face—isn't it just giving people free reign to try new stuff out?
It makes perfect sense. Generation C (the C is for—baulk—content) don't want to have their internet experience interrupted. They want to make an opinion formed on something tangible, and buy it because they like it. They don't want to be interrupted while buying protein powder online by a loud advert for a new lager.
You can't help wonder, too, what the end point of this kind of model is. Will people really go and buy a brand of yoghurt or cheese they've enjoyed from The Freemarket, which is basically a walk-in advert? It feels, although based on the way modern consumerism works, like a big risk. Even if someone has enjoyed a product, surely they'd just go back and try and get it for free again? I know I would.
In the restaurant world, the blogger-eats-for-free-for-the-price-of-a-review culture is still rife. The restaurant or PR company cover the cost of the meal in the hope that a blogger with a decent following will encourage however many readers they have to go and eat there too. It often backfires (spectacularly, in some cases), and—disagree as you will—there is a general, murmured consensus in the food industry that some bloggers take the piss.
Doesn't everyone, to some extent, with free stuff, though? We all know someone—unless my friends and immediate family are quietly sociopathic—who has made bogus or highly fabricated claims to a company to get something free? One friend of mine ate a KitKat Chunky once that was entirely solid chocolate. No wafer at all. What did she do? She ate the entire thing (after taking a picture) then sent a long, wordy letter to Nestlé about how disappointed she was to have her daily treat time ruined. She said they'd sullied her expectations of all KitKat Chunkies in the future and that it had made her very, very sad. They sent her a jiffy bag full of them back and a letter practically dripping with remorse.
OK, so my friend might be an arsehole, but among a certain generation—those born before the supposed Generation C 1988 cut-off—I don't know how the tryvert thing will work longterm. I think we all just like free stuff and will try and get free stuff wherever possible. It'll be interesting to see how it pans out.