Retailers anxious to lull shoppers into a holiday spending daze are debuting a new experiment in simulation: the "real" online store.
On Nov. 1, Walmart (WMT) launched two pop-up stores in San Diego and Los Angeles malls, where, instead of stroking the fabric of sweaters and sheets, shoppers can browse Walmart.com on tablet and laptop screens.
Walmart claims that "real" online shopping is convenient, combining the limitless inventory of the Web with help from knowledgeable sales staff. Some locals aren't buying it. One San Diego shopper points out that you have to pay to park at the mall, which costs more than shipping, "So what's the point?" he writes on the website of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Actually, shipping will cost you, too -- though Walmart will reimburse shoppers for it with gift cards.
Walmart isn't alone in this experiment: This year, Sears (SHLD), Kmart, and eBay (EBAY) have all launched retail experiments that put their websites on sidewalks and in malls. In most cases, smartphones are what connect the cloud with the food court. Sears and Kmart now have "mobile toy walls": interactive ads in airports and subways that display images of products alongside Quick Response codes. The QR codes -- those speckled squares that work like bar codes -- take shoppers to an online checkout when scanned by smart-phones.
Online-only retailer eBay launched a similar experiment back in October with its "Inspiration Shop" on New York City's Park Avenue. The "24/7 shoppable storefront" was designed to turn foot traffic into Web traffic via the eBay app.
'Let the Store Come to the People'
Whether the "stores" will attract shoppers -- or remain clever advertisements -- remains to be seen. So far, some San Diego residents are perplexed by the dainty 3,000-square-foot Walmarts (an average Walmart Supercenter is 185,000 square feet). "This is a stupid idea since anyone could do the same thing using their home computer," Cheryl Clark, a local shopper told the Union-Tribune.
"The Walmart.com stores are just a small test we're conducting during the holiday season to offer local customers easier, more convenient access to products," a Walmart spokesman told Reuters.
QR codes, widely embraced by marketers as a way to get consumers to interact with brands, have also been slow to catch on. While 40% of U.S. mobile users have smart-phones according Nielsen data, only 6.2% of mobile users scan QR codes, according to another study from June 2011.
Still, similar ventures in other countries have proved successful. Tesco, the supermarket chain, saw its online sales jump 130% when it launched a virtual grocery store in the subways of Seoul, Korea, a venture which inspired Sears and Kmart's mobile walls. There, busy commuters waiting for trains face life-size, hyper-realistic photos of fully stocked grocery aisles. By scanning QR codes, they can purchase items with smartphones and have them automatically delivered.
For Tesco, the walls were a way to "let the store come to the people," increasing market-share without having to open new locations, according to a video produced by Tesco's advertising agency, Cheil Worldwide.
In the U.S., more mobile users use smart phones than in South Korea, and mobile shopping is predicted to bring in $10 billion in sales in 2012, according to Forrester Research. Whether or not Sears' "mobile walls" catch on, they stand to raise awareness about Web offerings from the company, at the very least.
Meanwhile, in its grab for more online shoppers, Walmart has figured out something neither Tesco nor Amazon have -- how to bring the e-commerce experience to the people, even those without smartphones.
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