In Seoul, a virtual grocery store in the subway
January 11th, 2012
11:58 AM ET

In Seoul, a virtual grocery store in the subway

By John D. Sutter, CNN

(CNN) - Phones do everything in South Korea.

On a recent reporting trip to the country, I made a point of asking people about interesting ways they use their smartphones.

Some answers weren't too shocking. Lots of people know Koreans use their phones to make purchases (that's a new-ish idea here in the U.S., and one that Google is pushing) and in place of public-transit tickets.

Cab drivers in Seoul give you weird looks if you try to pay with a credit card instead of with a tap of your phone.

But one answer surprised me:

People now use their phones to buy groceries in the subway.

Over the past five months, Tesco, the British chain, has been opening virtual grocery stores in subway stations and bus stops in Seoul. Commuters use their smartphones to scan and purchase these virtual items, which are delivered to their homes.

"It’s really captured people's imaginations, which is something that’s really magical in retail," said Roberto Munoz, a spokesman for the company, which goes by the name Homeplus in Korea. "It has people thinking outside of the box about how they can purchase things - and the convenience with which they can purchase things."

The subway station walls look just like the shelves of a typical grocery store - only the items are just photographs and each is tagged with a QR Code (those black-and-white checkered things). Shoppers launch a Homeplus app and then scan the QR Codes of the items they'd like to purchase. Money is automatically deducted from the bank account of their choice, and the groceries are delivered to the address they've saved into the system. If you order by 1 p.m., the items arrive that very day.

(If that sounds confusing, you can check out this promotional video to see it in action).

There's plenty of undeserved hype surrounding QR Codes, as Amy Gahran recently pointed out, but this seems like an interesting implementation for a couple of reasons. First,  commuters are always wasting time by pecking on their phones while waiting for a train. These virtual stores could make that time more productive. And second, the fact that you can see life-sized photos of the grocery items, I would guess, makes people more likely to buy them. I'm the kind of person who never remembers he's out of milk until he sees milk somewhere. So the virtual store acts as a kind of reminder.

Munoz said the stores are just in the pilot phase for now, with locations in two subway stations and 20 bus stops, all in Seoul. One subway store features about 500 products, he said. A typical bus stop might showcase only 50.

The company isn't sure whether the concept would work outside Korea, but you never know.

"It’s an interesting way for us to be able to put a store nearly anywhere," Munoz said.

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Filed under: Innovation • Tech • World
soundoff (104 Responses)
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    Interesting, but one problem with such a system in the US is delivery. Businesses, with the exception of pizza joints, aren't set up for delivery here and would find the concept difficult to grasp, while it's commonplace in Asia and expected. The frequently bizarre schedules of Americans would also work against it; I wouldn't want groceries sitting on my front porch for several hours if I'll be arriving late unexpectedly.

    January 13, 2012 at 1:41 am | Reply
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      January 13, 2012 at 3:54 am | Reply
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      January 13, 2012 at 10:22 am | Reply
      • Dana

        Not plenty. Very few, even in big cities. And they have terrible delivery fee. I used to have my groceries delievered when i had a small baby and my car got broken, but I dont do that these days because of the delivery fees.

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      A pick-up system would be more applicable here in the states. Use an app to order the groceries and then pick them up, pre-package from the store. People usually do their grocery shopping after work on the way home. Also, using GPS, the app can send you a text message when you reach a predetermined location to remind you that you have groceries to pick-up.

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    As someone who's lived in Seoul for 4 years, I've never seen anyone pay for a taxi fare by using their money, and no a cab driver wouldn't look at you weird if you tried to pay by using a card. They have the card machines in there for a reason, why would they look at the customer weird?

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  37. SherwoodOR

    Hmmmm.... does anyone remember WebVan? Similar concept, no QR codes, you picked your items out on a website. They went bankrupt.

    January 11, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Reply
    • LP

      Yup. I lives in one of their markets. They grew super fast and then crashed quickly. They were literally there for orders one day and completely gone the next. It was very expensive to get the items delivered, so most people would just rather go to the store.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:54 pm | Reply
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  38. The_Mick

    I hardly use my cellphone so I buy a prepaid $99/year for 800 minutes package, but I can see where I'm going to have to go to a smart phone sooner or later. Similar to the story, it won't be long before you can walk through a store, scan items, and pick them up when you check out. I don't know how well that will work in places where you like to check out THE individual item you buy – like looking at the seams and buttons, etc. of clothes before you buy them – but it's sure to speed up things in many stores and result in less counter space taken up with large number of items.

    January 11, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Reply
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    Can you oRder wEeeD?

    January 11, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Reply
    • cando

      Sure, but they only give it to people with intelligence, so you won't get any.

      January 11, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Reply
    • SherwoodOR

      Scanning a QR code is at least as difficult as working a shift key, so even if they did offer that option, you wouldn't be able to take advantage of it. You'll just have to keep speed dialing your "friend" the old-fashioned way.

      January 11, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Reply
  40. Amy

    This fake and old.... originally came out in July 2011... additionally it was just an advertising concept for the Canes Advertising awards.

    January 11, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Reply
    • Kat

      It's not.. I live in Seoul currently and I see it everywhere. I've also used it once and it works perfectly.

      January 11, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Reply
    • Aiden K.

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  41. Arnold

    The last time I rode the subway in Soul it was a short trip to Lotte World.....the car was so packed, you could not lift a phone to your face.

    January 11, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Reply
  42. larry simpson

    I hate to break the bad news,but when I was a kid lots of things could be bought and delivered by using the phone. Our groceries were deleivered to us that way,our ice,our milk,and our animal feed.And we could could pay for it or sign and charge it.The date? 1950's and 60's

    January 11, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Reply
  43. Greenspam

    It's called a vending machine. Next!

    January 11, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Reply
    • Arnold

      Vending machines are point-of-purchase....the Koreans are ordering food items to be delivered to their homes – not the same concept.

      January 11, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Reply
    • Aiden K.

      you should bring your ordered stuff milk bread yogurt fruit
      it is vending machine so called

      if you order with your smart phone ( hope that you have one ) touch
      then they deliver the goods to your home
      so it is NOT a vending machine

      January 11, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Reply
  44. Forrza

    This is sp old, I got wind of this this past Fall and it was probably out there before then, a little behind in your new stories I would say...

    January 11, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Reply
    • Doctor

      Yea, this is NOT COMMON and in fact this picture isn't even in Seoul. Interesting idea, but there are not many people using this system if any.

      January 11, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Reply
  45. ad20

    Has he lost his mind?

    January 11, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Reply
  46. Thomas Veil

    Holy cow. Last time I read anything that crazy, the guy who wrote it shot a congresswoman in the head, and a bunch of other people too,

    January 11, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Reply
    • MARIE

      Please refrain from biologically contributing the gene pool. Thanks!

      January 11, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  47. responder

    Well, as crazy as the post above sounds, it is partially true. think about it if everyone was using a cell phone that is completely more cash..if cash is gone and all credit or cell phone purchases they are getting you away from using cash – cash is the only way to pay for something that is NOT TRACEABLE..this is a FACT. I dont know about all the anti white stuff.. but there are a lot of people out there that are trying to get rid of democracy and the one world government thing is truely a possiblitiy..people tend to disreguard soemthing when its right in there face becuase it sounds absurd..but this is not absurd..its a possibliity..if we hit WW3 and the enitre world is at war, the ONLY place i'd wnat to live is in AMERICA OR CANADA...PERIOD..anywhere else, well – they will probably impliment totaltarian and communistc ways to a point of loossing all freedoms PERIOD

    January 11, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Reply
    • Julius

      LOL... did you comment on the wrong article?

      ... or forget to take your meds in the morning?

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  48. Boneless Icecream

    Looks like psychopathic typing.

    January 11, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Reply

    MILLIONS TO BE ASSASSINATED FOR THE SAKE OF $$$ LIABILITIES(mk-ultra, chip implants, electroshocks etc. performed on them) AND NEW WORLD ORDER(multiculturalism = terrorism) POLITICAL AGENDA KNOWN AS "YOU ARE NEXT"(financial liabilities are 2 expensive for the government and it is cheaper to get read of you instead) !!! IF YOU WERE TREATED WITH ELECTROSHOCKS OR DRUGS USED FOR WIPING OUT MEMORY(numerous Americans and Europeans were and are) AFTER ENDURING FORCED CHIP IMPLANTS(or to retard individual = how homeless people are produced), YOU ARE SCHEDULED NEXT !!!






    January 11, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Reply
    • Yakobi

      Where's the "abuse" button when you need it?

      January 11, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Reply
    • joe08

      You need to seek help.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Reply
    • please get help

      This guy is clearly off his meds! I looked at some of his rants, and it is almost pure gibberish! I think my favorite part was when he claimed to be denied housning even though he claims to have a credit score of 1,000!?! I guess that he didn't know that credit scores don't even go that high! 😉

      January 11, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Reply
      • Yakobi

        You gave him way more attention than he was due.

        January 11, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
      • Snookums

        Don't worry - he's being watched.

        January 11, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
      • please get help

        yakobi, it was kind of like a train wreck ... you know it's not going to end up well, but you just ca't look away!

        January 11, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Duster

      Grilled-cheese sandwiches.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Reply
    • Jasonsociety

      I'm looking forward to a new world order I don't know about you. The thought of a one world governement is beautiful and it is something we should strive for!

      January 11, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Reply
    • You crazy O_o

      you sir are either A: drunk B: high C: an idiot D: One of those people who hangs around area 51 in tin foil suits E: just a guy who forgot to take his meds or F: all the above.

      January 11, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Reply

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