"Your Money's No Good Here" read the headline of an article by David McNeill in the Irish Times "Innovation" supplement (10 December). "Tokyo has a shop with no price tags, no cash registers or no paying customers – what's it all about?" No, they haven't introduced socialism in Japan. So what is it all about?
One of the more abstruse objections to socialism is that it would have no means of knowing what new products to make available and so people would have a narrower choice than under capitalism. The critics concede that, with free access to what they needed, people might well take from the common stores and distribution centres only what they needed till their next visit -- just as today, when some things are free, they end up taking only as much water or free travel or free phone calls as they need. But, the objection goes, how would you find out what new products to make available?
Socialists have replied that this would not be a problem in that the same sort of techniques for finding out what new products people might like that are used under capitalism could, with suitable modification, be used in socialism. Of course it could not be called "market research" since there'd be no markets, so it would have to be called something like "new wants research". But the techniques would be the same even though the aim would be to find out what new products people would take under conditions of free access instead of what they might be prepared to pay for.
Market research has traditionally involved questionnaires and many people have earned some extra money by stopping people in the street or phoning them to ask what they think of some product. The clue to what's it all about is in the name of the Tokyo free shop: Sample Lab. It's a shop where firms provide samples of their products for people to take and try without having to pay for them. According to David McNeill, this is known as "tryvertising".
It's not really like things would normally be in socialism, even though there are no price tags and no cash registers. Those who use the free sample shop have to pay a modest registration and annual membership fee and are expected to answer questions about the products they take away and try, and they can only take five products at a time. The advantage for the capitalist firms who supply the free samples is that they get some feedback on what people think of their new product and how well they are likely to sell if marketed, a feedback that is said to be more accurate than from questioning people in the streets or by phone.
But this technique, at present prostituted in the service of profit, could easily be adopted in socialism. There could still be sample shops where a representative cross-section of people could come and take new products to try in return for answering questions about what they thought of them. It might even still be called "tryvertising".