Hassloch, a small town in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, is the typical German town. For the past 30 years, it has been a test market for consumer researchers looking to launch new products nationwide.
A glimpse into Bettina Finco's shopping cart reveals mainly fruit and vegetables. "So, we're not an average German family," the 51-year-old laughs. Maybe, she adds, because her husband, 50, is an Italian from Sardinia. "Average! Who can say what average is?"
They may not be average, but they represent typical German consumers. Bettina Finco and her family live in a modest house in the town of Hassloch. She is a homemaker who occasionally waits tables at a local Italian restaurant. They have two young children and a medium-sized dog that dozes contentedly in his wicker dog basket tucked underneath the stairs.
The kitchen is sparkling clean. The fireplace in the bright living room is decorated with chunky candles. Book shelves from a Swedish furniture store adorn the wall above the fireplace. The TV is set up right next to it, and when it's switched on, what the Finco family are watching may be different from what families elsewhere in Germany will be seeing.
In the mid-1980s, Germany's Nuremburg-based Company for Consumer Research (GfK) discovered the small town as an ideal test market. The social structure and household incomes correspond exactly to the national average. Few Hassloch residents leave the town to shop elsewhere, and technically, it's no problem to feed TV programs with commercials for products that are not yet available nationwide.
Bettina Bartholomeyzik sits in a TV studio in a nondescript terraced house just a few streets away from the Finco's home. She is watching the afternoon program flicker across several TV screens mounted on the opposite wall. She's GfK's manager in Hassloch, and she explains, "Companies have the opportunity to test new products here, as well as the effectiveness of different commercials."
Eighty percent of all the products that are introduced on the German market every year vanish again. According to statistics, however, a product that passes the test in Hassloch "succeeds nationwide," she says.
Firms can place commercials that are reviewed by a test group; they can put up billboards and offer tastings in the supermarket. The Hassloch residents' purchases are scanned, their GfK card is registered, and, to show its appreciation, the consumer research group offers sweepstakes and refunds part of residents' cable charges.
The pedestrian zone looks like every other German shopping district, there's an optician, a deli and a bistro called Cheers. Posters advertise a "Deluxe party for the over-30s." People who live in Hassloch rarely shop in neighboring Mannheim and Ludwigshafen. They are "proud they are a large village," one passer-by says, praising the sports clubs in the area.
The local butcher shop is just as down-to-earth: customers look for schnitzel, liverwurst and even a Palatinate specialty, saumagen - stuffed pig's stomach, a favorite of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
A mini Germany
A Procter & Gamble baby food commercial booms through the supermarket. Non-resident shoppers may wonder whether they have ever seen this classy white box of dark Diva chocolates before, with a black ribbon bow possibly meant to appeal to women. An array of shower gel bottles with Playboy Bunny logos throngs the shelves - are they new? According to the media, Wrigley and Ferrero also test new products in Hassloch - but nobody's allowed to know officially.
Trends may even go both ways. People who were children in the 1980s are pleasantly surprised to see Raider candy bars wrapped in gold foil in the Hassloch supermarket, just like they used to be before the chocolate was renamed Twix in a major advertising campaign. Is the company planning on returning to the old brand name?
Bettina Finco doesn't care. "We don't know which products are being tested, "she says. "We go shopping perfectly normally - after all, they want a realistic shopping behavior."
If Diva chocolates suddenly show up in German supermarkets nationwide, however - that might be thanks to Bettina Finco's buying patterns.