Online shopping has been available for quite some time now, with online stores like Amazon and eBay providing a variety of products to people across the globe. Shopping online removes the inconvenience of long lines at the counter and long drives to the supermarket every week. With the rise of smartphones and always-connected mobile devices like tablets, a new method of shopping has been on the rise using Quick Response codes or QR codes. A QR code is a type of barcode first seen in the automotive industry—an enhancement of the standard UPC barcode that offers larger storage capacities and faster readability. The use of QR codes has been expanding according to studies; in the U.S., 14 million mobile users scanned a QR code since last year, with 58% scanning QR codes from home and 39% from retail stores.
QR codes are being tested for use in “virtual stores,” where consumers can go shopping using their smartphones. In Korea, one of the top supermarkets in the country, Tesco, conducted an experiment in 2011 that surprised even them. In an effort to be South Korea’s number one supermarket, Tesco, now known as Tesco Home Plus, put up virtual supermarkets in several subway stations for waiting commuters. Subway commuters were surprised to see large posters that looked like actual store shelves, and all they had to do was scan the QR codes with their smartphones if they wanted to buy something. The items would then be added to their virtual shopping cart, to be delivered right at their doorstep once they get home. The response to the experiment was overwhelming; the “virtual shoppers” loved how it made them feel like shopping in an actual supermarket—without the long lines and the rushing shoppers. They appreciated the fact that their waiting time in the subway can now be put to good use so they don’t have to go shopping during the weekend.
The result of the Tesco virtual store experiment is encouraging, to say the least, showing that many still prefer to shop in actual stores. The idea behind the experiment is taking the store to the people, and that is exactly what these people may have wanted. Farmers and other product manufacturers also benefit through advertising of their products in the virtual store—advertising that can possibly turn to a sale in an instant. Tesco now ranks number one in the online market and is a close second to South Korea’s top supermarket offline.
We have yet to see if virtual stores will catch on in other countries, especially considering the popularity of online shopping. The key is finding that sweet spot between virtual stores and online shopping; the store who finds this first will be number one in shoppers’ hearts and minds both online and offline.