Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Futuristic Shopping – Groceries via QR codes scanned by Smartphone.

A lot of geeks who grew up watching classic cartoons dreamed of living in a futuristic world like the one we saw depicted in the old-school vision of what future life would be like. Commuting in a flying car, robotic servants and automatic housing that does nearly everything for you at the touch of a button. The future envisioned 50 years ago hasn't arrived yet, but every once in a while, tech news shows us an advance that suggests it is getting just a little bit closer. The portable electronic devices used for communication and entertainment get a little better each year, and visionaries innovate with these platforms to make lives easier a bit at a time. No matter what someone wants to do with their business, it is always easiest to attract customers by appealing to their sense of convenience. Someone who might not pay extra for quality, novelty or might not switch from a brand they are used to is more likely to buy a product based not primarily on price, but convenience. This concept is at the heart of a kind of store in South Korea that looks like it belongs in a cartoon's vision of the future.

When I first heard about a virtual grocery, this is pretty much what first came to mind.

Tesco (who recently changed their name to HomePlus there,) the 2nd largest grocery store chain in Korea was confronted with a problem. Their largest competitor had many more stores than they did, and opening new locations is a great way to gamble potential profits by greatly increasing overhead. They decided to try an unconventional solution to the problem of not being able to grow and remain competitive without opening many new locations. South Korea has a high population density and many professionals have long working hours and short leisure time, so running necessary errands is inconvenient and stressful. Another thing that is interesting about South Korea is the level of smartphone adoption is extremely high throughout the population as compared to the US and many countries in Europe. Web-based grocery stores have had some limited success, but shopping for your food on a smartphone screen while waiting for the train to or from work isn't really a solution many people will accept.

Tesco decided to take another sort of gamble, with virtual supermarkets in subway stations, life sized pictures of food and drink on shelves that look enough like an actual supermarket for people to be able to shop. The photographs have QR codes that can be scanned with a smartphone's camera to add the product into a virtual shopping cart for home delivery, a service that has been developed with the ability to provide home delivery within hours rather than days. Looking at the virtual stores it is interesting to note that the products aren't lined up, in general with only one on the “shelf” except in cases where there are multiple varieties or flavors, just like actual displays in physical stores. The experimental stores have proven successful even beyond the short period where novelty could be expected to be the primary factor in people trying things out.

I'd like to see QR codes used in the US for more than stupid gimmicks in entertainment.

There are a lot of downsides to doing weekly shopping for the home in a shop like this, and reasons why a similar idea would have trouble taking root here in the US for the moment. For a lot of people, the tactile sense of being able to pick up and look at a container or individual item is very important in selecting something like food. Also, the produce and meat in a virtual supermarket is a photograph of a perfectly fresh item, and anyone who has compared the food inside a container to the picture on the outside knows how different the reality can be from pictures taken for marketing purposes. Whatever is delivered to the home is what is selected at a warehouse before shipping, with the control over quality of the individual piece of fruit, vegetable or cut of meat out of the individual control of the customer. Even with the fastest possible delivery time, there's also something to be said for not wanting to wait for a delivery service to arrive, though in this case, if you REALLY want it now, maybe you're willing to travel to a shop.

Presuming that service quality makes some of those questions a non-issue, and that convenience trumps the rest, there are still logistical differences between South Korea and many other countries. The primary obstacle standing in the way of something like this taking root somewhere outside of South Korea is the rate of smartphone adoption is much lower elsewhere. Virtually 100% of the South Korean population has a mobile phone, and almost a third of those are smartphones. In the US, rate of adoption is on the rise, but isn't where it would need to be for a service like this to be a smart business to open, at least for now. Home delivery in Seoul has already been nearly perfected, something made easier by the extreme population density allowing for a successful delivery service to drop off many packages in a single run. The “convenience factor” starts to tarnish a little in countries that don't have a home delivery service industry developed to the point where it can be run profitably without a lot of extra charges added for the convenience.

Mmmm... pizza.

Personally, if a service like this were available here in the US, and I had a phone capable of taking advantage of it, I'd likely give it a shot. Thinking about trips to the grocery, dealing with crowded parking lots, people rushing through the store itself without being considerate of others, screaming children... I'd sacrifice being able to actually handle an individual item for not having to deal with that, especially if the virtual store was somewhere I had to be daily anyway. When it comes to worrying about the quality of the food, I'd guess that a business like this has to maintain a high level of quality specifically to dispel this sort of concern. In instances of human error or something else resulting in an order filled incorrectly or with food of unacceptable quality, either the business would resolve such (hopefully rare) incidents quickly, or they couldn't expect to stay in business for very long. For now, though, I have to wait. No virtual grocery here yet... and no flying cars.
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Bard said...

I would so totally jump on this if it were available. Of course, living in a rural area with an extremely low population density, means it'll probably never happen for me.

Alpha said...

South Korea must be an interesting place to live/visit.

Jay said...

of couse people will be skeptical at first, but if they:

a) provide the goods without any defects;

b) deliver them on time; and

c) do the above two consistently.

then i can see a future for virtual groceries. :D

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