This month, Toronto's Union Station will turn into a virtual mall. As the 200,000 daily commuters scurry toward Brookfield Place, they'll pass posters of shelves lined with pictures of household and personal care goods. Items for sale include batteries, detergents, diapers and toothpaste-all available for purchase by smartphone.
How to buy from the virtual store
Smartphone users must first download a special app from Well.ca, a health and beauty retail website. Shoppers can use their smartphone's camera to scan unique quick response (QR) codes under the desired product graphics on the wall. The smartphone app stores scanned choices in an online shopping cart, which users pay for when they check out from Well.ca.
Special price discounts apply during the April test pilot. For example, fabric softener sheets regularly priced at $6.49 cost only $3.99. All purchases are shipped for free, regardless of price.
Critics say the virtual store's scanning system is easy to use. The Blog of John writes that this is because users don't have to align their smartphone cameras exactly with the QR codes, which is helpful since some displayed products are hard to reach.
Also, buyers receive status-report emails advising when their virtual store purchases are processed and shipped (sometimes the next day but usually within 3 business days).
Like online orders, credit cards are the preferred payment method for completing virtual store purchases. Well.ca accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Paypal, Interact, and prepaid credit cards.
Pro/Con: Location, location, location
The virtual store is located in one of Toronto's fastest-paced pedestrian thoroughfares and it will surely garner a lot of attention. However commuters rushing to catch their bus or train might not have time to peruse the various scents, flavours and products offered. Shoppers will discover 12 different toothpaste varieties ranging from cinnamon rush to cool peppermint. Similarly, there are 14 different types of diapers depending on quantity, product material and baby's height.
Pro/Con: Your time savings may vary
It takes under 10 minutes for first-time users to download the smartphone app, scan several products and enter billing information. On future purchases, one can easily scan items in less than one minute. That is, provided you know exactly what you want to buy before approaching the virtual-store shelves.
Also, if no one is at home when Canada Post tries to deliver an order, customers have to claim their parcels at the nearest postal outlet, often located within a retail store where they could have bought the items in the first place.
Con: Limited number of products for sale
The virtual shelves display about 120 product varieties, but less than 20 distinct types of products. In contrast, Well.ca carries more than 50,000 beauty, health, personal care and household goods on its website.
Consumers may decide to shop online for the wider product range on Well.ca, using either their smartphones or computers. Brick-and-mortar stores on the nearby PATH network offer broader merchandise choices, too.
Con: Cold feet
According to a September 2011 comScore report, 8 million Canadians own smartphones. Another study from Boston Consulting Group shows that, unlike American smartphone users, Canucks tend to research products online but prefer to buy in traditional stores.
Kaan Yigit, President of Solutions Research Group, was quoted in a recent Globe and Mail article saying that only 20 per cent of Canadian smartphone owners scan QR codes. Given Canadians' slowness to embrace smartphone technology for buying products, Toronto's virtual store may find a less than stellar response.
It's difficult to say whether Toronto's virtual store represents the long-term vision for Canadian shopping. But for now, smartphone users who scan product pictures on Brookfield Place's walls will get a taste of an innovative way to buy on the run.