Simon Ellacott, a Managing Consultant in our Marketing, Sales and Service practice looks at an innovation in South Korean retail that could transform the way we all do our grocery shopping in the digital future.

I’m a fairly active person and I’m certain to do a large and varied amount of activities in any given week. Some of these I do for the sheer, unadulterated fun of it (all too few), whilst other things can’t be avoided but are not unpleasant. However, at the far end of the scale there are two particular activities that I have to do regularly and from which I take no pleasure at all. They are functional, dull, grinding chores that offer all the mental stimulation, emotional reward and task satisfaction that only phone-book proof readers could ever truly master. I am talking, of course, about commuting and food shopping. So it was with great surprise I found myself wanting to do the two things combined as I discovered Tesco’s new virtual supermarket in South Korea.

Tesco Homeplus have installed a virtual supermarket in Hangangjin subway station in July. It’s a deceptively simple idea; a wall is covered with a picture of life-size supermarket shelves. Similarly life-sized products adorn the shelves with a price tag and a QR code – a mock up of the ‘real world’ experience. So you, the commuter, browse what’s on offer, whip out your smart phone and scan anything you want to buy. By completing the web transaction in this way, the products are ordered and delivered to your home by the end of the day. Brilliant! I, the beleaguered commuter, no longer need to stare into vacant space and wait interminably for my tube train. Neither do I, the time-poor commuter, need to traipse to the supermarket and dodge the ‘mall zombies’ or queue behind kindly but infuriating pensioners paying for trolleys of cat food with bags of pennies. It strikes me as a wonderful way to pass some of the time on the unavoidable commute and save some time from an avoidable shopping trip.

I confess, I am also drawn to the appeal of a virtual browsing experience that is a mash-up of real world and online shopping. I rarely do my grocery shop online, but if I do I am extremely unlikely to buy products that I have never seen ‘in the flesh’; thumbnail images don’t really convey what it is I’m going to get. Admittedly it’s only a small step in the right direction for me, but a life-size picture I can walk up to does give me a better impression of what I’m going to buy.

Impressed as I am by the concept of an enhanced virtual experience, I am yet more impressed by the elegance of the idea. Comparatively, it is of course far cheaper than building a new store (or subway store-cabin) and providing the logistics of supplying and staffing such a store. After all, once you’ve paid for the advertising space you only need to pay for a large, high quality print-out. It also eliminates shoplifting at a stroke and removes the issues of transporting cash. At this point we may be tempted to think it’s better to go that step further and go totally online – but then consider how this campaign manages to get air time of people – it might take a large amount on online spend to persuade them to visit your site, before they transact. A virtual store in a busy tube station acts both as advert for the brand – and as a direct channel for sales. There are opportunities to extend the idea – perhaps in the future the static posters of shelves will be replaced by interactive screens that let me take a real good look at the product?

The design agency, Cheil claimed that the trial boosted the retailer’s online sales by 130 per cent and online members by 76 per cent. If the figures are right then this may be a highly visible and landmark step in digital transformation – could it go on to transform the mass market? Saatchi & Saatchi X have said that the time is right to bring the experience to the UK so I may yet witness it with my own eyes – although we would need some form of Wi-Fi penetration of the tube network.

In the meantime I eagerly await to hear the results of the experiment and dream of a time when I will be able to combine my two most unloved chores into a single, manageable unloved chore.