Wednesday April 16, 2014 Full Website »

The Grocery Store of the Future?

The Grocery Store of the Future?
Courtesy of Peapod

People do any number of things while waiting on the platform for the next subway or commuter train. Some pre-walk to position themselves at the best station exit for their destination. Some just mindlessly pace. The ones who used to look down the track every few moments for the next train now look at the digital arrival times every few moments instead. Some take pictures of rats.

And, as of earlier this month, some Philadelphians have been able to shop for groceries. The online grocer Peapod introduced virtual storefronts at select SEPTA stations throughout the city. While awaiting a train, users can download the Peapod app, peruse the items in front of them, and scan the barcode of anything they'd like to purchase. The groceries are delivered to their homes later that day.

Philly marks the idea's American debut, but a number of international cities already have similar services. Woolworths has placed virtual storefronts at the Town Hall Station in Sydney, Australia, and displays from British retailer Tesco were installed last year in South Korea. If three is a trend, you just got trended.

So far, Tesco's storefronts are the most impressive of the bunch. While Peapod's displays will be stuck on traditional advertising boards, Tesco has filled multiple panels of platform doors with its digital supermarket aisles. The company reports that online sales in Korea are up 130 percent since the storefronts were implemented. Here's a look at Tesco virtual shoppers in action:

(One perplexing thing about the displays is that multiple items of the same product are offered. Verisimilitude is clearly the aim here, but it still kind of seems like a waste of space. Would you rather choose between the same exact two pretend Nestle Quik bottles, or ditch one to make room for a phantom Bosco? Unless of course the milks have different expiration dates; in which case, criticism withdrawn.)

Peapod operates in 24 U.S. cities, so success in Philadelphia could theoretically mean expansion to places like Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. Of course there are some problems to address. On subway-heavy transit systems like New York's, Internet connection is spotty or non-existent (though more stations are getting wired everyday). Finding space for the storefronts might also be challenging. American cities don't have the platform doors that Tesco appears to use in South Korea. That leaves wall space, much of which is already occupied by existing advertisers or system maps.

On the plus side, it opens up a world of opportunity for wags to use the phrase "express line."

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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