A scheme for sampling durable goods first-hand before making a purchase

A problem when trying to purchase some classes of products (like pillows, computer mice, and sleep masks) is that it is difficult to sample lots of them first-hand before making a purchase. This forces one to rely on product reviews or to settle for one’s limited experience (such as just buying the same kind that a friend has that seems good enough, or trying the few available samples at a brick and mortar store).

Here is a naive scheme to allow a group of people to sample a bunch of kinds of a single product before making a purchase:

  • Suppose there are contender products.

  • Find people.

  • Person 1 buys all products and collects payment equal to the average cost of the products from each of the other people.

  • Person 1 tries all products, then ships all of the products to person 2.

  • From here the process repeats: person 2 tries all the products, then ships them all to person 3, etc.

  • At the end, each person buys their favorite product. (In this naive scheme, the products used during the sampling process are thrown away.)

At the end of the scheme, each of the people will have their favorite product, for an average cost equal to twice the average cost of the products, plus shipping costs. (There’s some subtlety here where, e.g. if better products tend to be more expensive, then you would expect people to pay more than the average.)

The above scheme can be improved in simple ways, such as not throwing away the products used during the sampling process, and instead letting people keep them (and then somehow distributing the savings). The more diverse people’s tastes are, the higher the savings. The contender products can also be chosen in “smart” ways such as by reading product reviews online (not adding such a preliminary research step would be silly, since it would just be emulating what brick and mortar stores already do). If more than people are found, the overhead can also be reduced (with people, products, and an average cost of products, the expected cost will be , plus shipping).

Some things I like about this scheme:

  • It allows people to have first-hand experience of all of the products. This has several benefits:

    • eliminates reliance on product reviews

    • respects people’s idiosyncratic preferences (in fact, the scheme encourages idiosyncrasy because the more people prefer different products, the lower the overhead cost)

    • simplifies the product research process; e.g. instead of looking up the relevant parameters of all of the products and making comparisons (such as when buying a computer mouse) or getting frustrated about there not being good parameters for comparison (such as with pillow shopping), one can just try the products and get an intuitive feel

  • A 2x overhead is high, but not crazy high compared to e.g. just buying all of the products oneself (resulting in an x overhead).

The main disadvantage seems to be the difficulty of coordinating to find a bunch of people who are all interested in buying the same kind of product, and then managing all the logistics. The scheme also doesn’t work for consumables, disposable goods, and experiences. Large items like mattresses may also have shipping costs that are too high.

Some questions I have:

  • Is there prior literature on schemes like this, or a place to find people to do experiments like this with?

  • Are there ways to improve the scheme, e.g. to reduce the overhead or achieve the same result with fewer people?

Thanks to Vipul Naik for reading a draft of this post and suggesting an improvement.