Skip to Content

Virtual Grocery Shopping

International supermarket giant brings virtual goods to subway commuters in South Korea, eliminating the need for a physical store.

Where the rest of us see subway walls, Tesco’s South Korean supermarket chain Home Plus sees grocery shelves. In a trial run, Home Plus has plastered a subway station with facsimiles of groceries, labeled with a unique code for each product. As commuters pass by on their way to work, they can use a mobile-phone app to take pictures of the products they want, then check out. The groceries are automatically delivered to their doorstep by the end of the work day.

Shop and hop: Commuters in South Korea pick out the night’s groceries in a virtual mart; the content of their carts are waiting for them when get home.

The virtual grocery store has been a hit among more 10,000 customers, with Home Plus reporting a 130 percent increase in online sales. The experiment is just one of the increasingly innovative ways mobile devices are being used in retail. Location-based smart-phone advertising is seen as a potentially valuable way to reach new customers. Some companies in the United States are also using indoor positioning technology as a way to guide shoppers to products and show them special offers. And software makers are exploring different ways of paying for products by smart phone.

In Home Plus’s virtual store, each image of a grocery item is accompanied by a quick-response (QR) code, a boxy geometric image that encodes data—the product and its price. When each code is scanned, the item goes into an online shopping cart. Customers then use their phones to pay before hopping the train to work.

People have long been able to scan QR codes with their smart-phone cameras to access whatever information the code holds. And online grocery shopping has been around even longer. Still, the grocery industry has seen little technological innovation since the implementation of the universal product code (UPC) bar code in the 1970s. As of 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that just 0.2 percent of the food and beverage industry’s sales were made online. This new strategy could allow retailers to target highly specific audiences. The success of Home Plus’s project may prompt other retailers to think about new approaches to shopping that could cut overhead expenses.

Whether or not virtual markets catch on, some experts think radical changes in shopping are right around the corner. “For sure, your cell phone will be the graphical user interface to the shopping services,” says Abel Sanchez, research lead at MIT’s Intelligent Engineering Systems Laboratory. “Think of the early days of the Web versus today. In the early 1990s, the Web was one way, like a paper book. Today, the Web is full of interaction; it’s how we do our jobs. I think the supermarket will go through a similar transformation.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

open sourcing language models concept
open sourcing language models concept

Meta has built a massive new language AI—and it’s giving it away for free

Facebook’s parent company is inviting researchers to pore over and pick apart the flaws in its version of GPT-3

transplant surgery
transplant surgery

The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus

The first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human may have ended prematurely because of a well-known—and avoidable—risk.

Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research
Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research

Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging

The oil kingdom fears that its population is aging at an accelerated rate and hopes to test drugs to reverse the problem. First up might be the diabetes drug metformin.

Yann LeCun
Yann LeCun

Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI

One of the godfathers of deep learning pulls together old ideas to sketch out a fresh path for AI, but raises as many questions as he answers.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.