NEW YORK – With the economy in the dumps, you might hesitate before buying discretionary goodies like video games or pizza.
But what if you could get those things for free by doing something you might already be inclined to do — like signing up for a trial of Netflix or buying coffee from Starbucks.com?
Mountain View, Calif.-based TrialPay offers just that kind of a deal, which it bills as a win-win-win for consumers, merchants and advertisers. It probably won't change your buying habits dramatically, but it could help you get a (sort of) free lunch.
Here's how it works: Let's say you're perusing a movie ticket Web site. If that site is working with TrialPay, you might be presented with the option to get tickets not by paying for them directly, but simply by completing a purchase or trial offer with another company.
If you're game, you can click to see a list of participating companies, such as Starbucks or Netflix. And if you agree you'll receive e-mailed instructions on how to get your free movie tickets.
As TrialPay's 27-year-old co-founder, Alex Rampell, describes it, the service is "kind of like PayPal for people who don't pay."
Rampell began building his own business in high school and college by selling shareware — software that you can generally download and try for free but are later prompted to pay for.
He came up with the idea for TrialPay in 2004 as a way to get more consumers to "pay" for his software, after talking with a marketer friend who helped him realize how much companies are willing to shell out to acquire customers.
People might not be willing to pay for software, but they might be willing to pay for cat food, he mused. And if a cat food seller is willing to pay the software seller for sending it a customer, then the software seller could ostensibly give its product to the customer for free.
Most of the free items you can get through TrialPay retail for about $30 or less. And except for some deals, like one with pizza-delivery chain Papa John's, most are not physical goods.
Still, the model appears to be working. Since the company started in the summer of 2006, it has grown to include more than 7,500 merchants and about 2,000 advertisers. TrialPay makes its money by taking a cut of what the advertiser pays the merchant.
Since the idea of TrialPay appealed to my bargain-hunting side, I put it to the test.
First, I snagged a $20 downloadable copy of the video game "Bejeweled 2" from PopCap Games by signing up for a free trial of Netflix's DVD rental service.
The process took about 10 minutes, including required visits to a few different Web pages and the receipt of an e-mail from Netflix and one from TrialPay telling me how to claim my free game.
Then I got a $20 alternative to Apple Inc.'s iTunes software called "iPod Access" from Findley Designs by signing up for a free trial of eMusic's song download service.
That proved more irritating, since I was also prompted to try eMusic's audio-book service and subscriptions to several magazines.
This time, I managed to game the TrialPay system by using coupon codes I found online to get 10 percent off my stamps and free shipping, knocking several dollars off my order.
Now I had three freebies, which was pretty cool, but I also had two services that would soon show up as monthly fees on my credit card bill (not to mention a $17 charge for 20 stamps emblazoned with a photo I took of a llama.)
I was jazzed about the stamps and figured I would keep Netflix — I had been meaning to sign up and just never got around to it — but I didn't want eMusic.
Predictably, though, I forgot to cancel the music service within the one-week trial period; a $12 charge served as a reminder.
It's too bad you have to essentially stumble across TrialPay offers online. There is no master list you can check out. Rampell explained this is mainly because TrialPay wants consumers who are already interested in buying an item online but are hesitating. He sees these people as more valuable to the advertisers that are subsidizing the freebies.
This may frustrate some people, but it does make sense. If you do come across TrialPay offers in the wild, asking you if you'd like to get a movie ticket or computer software for free, it might be worth clicking through to check it out.