The next big thing in shopping may be to walk away empty handed. That’s because an increasing number of companies are putting up virtual stores that have no physical merchandise; instead, posters display products with quick response (QR) codes. Customers scan the matrix barcodes with their smartphones, pay for the items in their virtual cart, and items are delivered to their doors within hours to days, depending on the items.
It’s the advantage of window shopping without the hassle of standing in line to check out.
Since 2009, virtual stores have been popping up across the world in locations within South Korea, Canada, US, UK, Ireland, Sweden, Chile, and Argentina. The latest? Walmart teamed up with Mattel to offer a virtual toy store at Union Station in Toronto for a month before the holidays. This site sees over 200,000 commuters a day passing through, so the hottest toys were displayed to catch consumers eyes as they headed to and from work.
But Walmart wasn’t the first to occupy the space. The health and beauty online store Well.ca installed a virtual store at the site last April. According to its founder, it was a huge success and increased sales on the products that were displayed as well as serving as an advertisement for the store.
Watch the video to see how well positioned the Well.ca store was in Toronto:
Although many companies offer online stores for shopping, the advantage to a physical location that displays large numbers of products is retaining one of the most invaluable benefits of shopping: browsing. Mobile devices limit the number of products that can be seen due to their screen space, whereas physical posters can display dozens of products at a time. Displays of products catch consumer attention and help them find items quickly, allowing them to avoid keyword searching in an online store which can be hit or miss. The virtual stores also capitalize on prior shopping experiences by including products on shelves, which encourages an immersive shopping experience that is absent from mobile online stores.
The virtual store concept started in 2009 when the British grocery chain Tesco launched its HomePlus service in South Korea, which installed posters that look exactly like a grocery store aisle onto the walls of subway stations. Once purchased, the items would be delivered to commuters within hours to their doors. A very similar type of service is now being offered in Chicago by Peapod with 17 stations having virtual stores installed last September.
QR codes have been around since the 1990s but the surge in smartphones has made them incredibly popular for gathering information, whether it’s for shopping purposes or tourism as evidenced by the world’s first Wikipedia town. Besides Walmart, other major companies are employing virtual stores including Sears, JC Penny, Kmart, and Staples, and ad campaigns from Chili’s and Starbucks have used the approach as well.
What’s going on here isn’t anything new — in fact, it’s exactly what companies have been using mail order catalogs for since Montgomery Ward mailed them out in 1872. Back then, item descriptions were accompanied with an item number that was put on an order page and received through the mail weeks later. Today, images of products give a visual representation of the item, QR codes have replaced the item number, and delivery times have moved up to days and in some cases even hours.
But this convergence of the physical and virtual worlds is a significant change from mail order catalogs primarily because it involves the smartphone, the all-in-one device that also allows interaction with billboards, precise location mapping down to the inch, unlocking of hotel doors, and payments with digital wallet applications. It seems that some exciting promises of the digital age once centered around desktop computers are achieving their potential with smartphones.
Speaking of empowerment, anyone can generate their own QR codes even making them artistic, and because the number of possible QR codes is astronomical (2 to the power of 23624), it is a system that could catalog everything that has ever been manufactured or sold in history.
The future of virtual stores looks bright. As companies increasingly look to lower their overhead, minimize losses due to products exceeding their shelf life, and fit better into the evolving mobile lifestyles of consumers, virtual stores will likely become the norm anywhere there’s a surface to turn into a storefront.