Retail gimmicks or the future of shopping?

Bus stop with HMV QR codes HMV has brought QR codes to the bus stop

Retailers are struggling to get shoppers to spend right now - and they are hoping that new technology might be the answer.

News of two hi-tech initiatives that try to marry the real and virtual worlds has arrived in my inbox this week.

But both technologies - augmented reality and QR codes - still have to convince consumers they are more than just gimmicks.

Tesco is hoping that augmented reality will give shoppers a better feel for products, either in store or online. The technology may be familiar to mobile phone users through various apps that use the phone's camera to overlay information or images on the real world.

Tesco has installed AR screens - in effect giant webcams - in four stores as it pilots the technology. Shoppers can then pick up various entertainment products - DVDs, books - show the pack to the screen and see a trailer or get more information.

Rob Salter, head of entertainment products at Tesco, says the idea is to bring the products to life: "Some of these products - like a movie - don't mean much until you actually use them. If you haven't actually seen them, you are less likely to buy, so I'm keen on anything that brings them to life."

Tesco DVD stand Augmented reality is being used at Tesco stores

The other aspect of the trial is allowing customers to use augmented reality at home via this site. The idea here is that you hold products or your clubcard or a catalogue up to the webcam and you then get an "augmented experience".

If for instance you would like to see how a new television would look in your living-room you can project it into position using your webcam and a product code.

I've not really explained that very well - and I think that's the problem. When you see it in action, augmented reality is great fun. But the concept is difficult to get across to new users. And at home, you need to download new software and jump through a series of hoops to get started.

Many may decide they would rather just get on with their shopping, though Rob Salter says that he has watched customers confronted with the AR project in stores and they seem to find it pretty intuitive.

If AR is in its infancy, QR codes have been around for a while and the square barcode symbols that take you online when you point your phone at them are popping up everywhere.

The most startling example I've seen was in adverts placed above each urinal in the toilets at a motorway service station.

And this week 20th Century Fox and HMV teamed up to launch what they describe as the UK's first virtual store to sell BluRay and DVD movies.

The stores are actually posters on bus-stops with QR codes on each image of a DVD or Blu-Ray. Point your phone at them and they take you to the HMV online store where you can buy them.

Both firms believe that busy shoppers will welcome the opportunity to do a bit of Christmas shopping while they hang around for a bus. Maybe... though I've yet to see much evidence of QR codes catching the public imagination here in the UK as they appear to have done in Asia.

Korean grocery store QR is used in Tesco's Korean grocery stores

HMV and Fox admit their QR venture was in part inspired by this rather more impressive virtual grocery store (right).

It is at a South Korean subway station and allows passers-by to scan items using QR codes and then have them delivered to their homes.

And, believe it or not, this is a Tesco store. The firm's Korean HomePlus chain is testing the theory that commuters would rather do some virtual shopping on the way home than lug heavy bags from a real store.

So British retailers have been pioneers in using the latest technology. The trouble is that consumers here have been far slower to embrace new gizmos than their counterparts in South Korea or Japan.

And by the time Tesco and Fox have got shoppers to understand AR and QR, they may be out of fashion.

After all, in Asia, NFC - Near Field Communication - is now built into many phones, with millions swiping their mobiles to get on the train or to buy a coffee. Another new acronym that British retailers will have to decode for shoppers.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • Comment number 43.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    40 TimmyNorfolk

    Yes, you could go to or, since you're typing in a URL anyway, you could go to Amazon instead, or just Google the film title and see where you can get it cheapest.

    Now, the retailer would rather you didn't go around using your brain like that, so they give you a QR code which takes you oh-so-painlessly to their website and gently parts you from your money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    @TimmyNorfolk #40 - And if I want to actually own it and watch it in my living room, not just stream it and watch it on a computer? Or download and burn to a DVD?

    That's the problem with today...people are so ready to give up quality for convenience. Yoofs roaming around listening to awful quality MP3s reduced even more by the tinny speakers on their mobile phones are testament to this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    So now i can buy from HMV whilst waiting for a bus... Pretty sure i could do that before...
    But people are still missing the point. "I want that DVD for tonight" - Well get on LoveFilm (or similar) then

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Those who consciously remain computer illiterate will no doubt remain perfectly content. Just as those who choose not to drive, or have mobile phones, or Sky+, can actually lead fulfilling lives despite missing out on what most of us regard as essential parts of our lives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    To all those saying that the computer illiterate will be left out, you know what we have been living in the computer age for over half a century and its time we moved on,Agreed this does seem like a gimmick but then how many inventions have been labbeled in the same way only to become considered essential to modern life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    T_20 some on here would dare say that is a bad, out-dated way of doing business that will soon die. The future is to not be able to play with anything or browse or experiment, but instead to make a selecting from a list of pictures and then pick your new purchase up at a time and location that are both incredible inconvenient to you. If you have any problems then that's when the fun really starts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Apple have it cracked, and it is a matter of good old-fashioned customer service. You can go into one of their shops, play with anything you are interested in and very soon an assistant will appear to ask if you have any questions. Plenty information and no pressure. Other shops don't even get the basics right, for example just one display model either behind a glass case or with a flat battery.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    @camyeoerfraefrance #32

    > I'm sure that even people on benefits have them

    If you want to indicate that something is cheap enough to be commonly available, then the phrase you are looking for is actually;

    "I'm sure that even people with jobs have them"

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    I completely agree about QR codes. I see one on a TV ad, press pause on Sky+, get the smartphone out and scan the code, and I end up at the advertiser's website. Why not just give us the URL in human readable form? And have you ever tried to scan a code from a moving bus?

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    32 camy
    47percent of teenagers and 27percent of adults. Not a majority, but a sizeable market of higher-end consumers. The key will lie in finding a way to use the technology innovatively and effectively. People will soon tire of a QR code that just holds a URL, and the augmented reality tools I've seen so far have the air of a solution looking for a problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    What are you two rabbiting on about? There are easily enough smartphones around to make this take off if it's attractive to people. There doesn't need to be a majority using smartphones, though there probably nearly is, and certainly will be within a year or two. They're as cheap as chips, and I'm sure that even people on benefits have them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    30 ravenmorpheus2k
    Fair enough. Whether it can then be called a hit, as you said in your original post, remains to be seen.

    I dare say the "creative" media types who, far from thinking outside the box, are unable to think beyond their own experience, will assume that, since they all use it on their iPhones, everyone else in the UK does too, and duly dub it so.

    The accountants may disagree.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    @28.Miss Ingoff - I don't think that "they" are so naive to believe that in the near future, or even currently, that the majority will all own smartphones, if they do then they are not looking at the economic make up of the UK.

    As for them believing the minority will spend more, well that again goes back to my original point - It's something again for the minority.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    The future of shopping is far different than most people can imagine. There's all this new technology out there, but most marketers are stuck in the traditional way of doing things. To combat this inertia, I started writing very short, highly plausible "science fiction" stories that show the future of business over the next few years...

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    25 ravenmorpheus2k
    Ah, I see where I've not made my point very well now. Sorry about that.

    I'm not saying I myself believe a majority will own smartphones. I'm saying that those who do invest in this must believe that either a majority will ultimately own smartphones or that the minority who do will spend enough to make it worth their while.

    I'll not cry my eyes out if they're wrong!

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    The problem with Tesco (from bitter personal experience) is that they often can't even make their basic online shopping work. I gave up on them because my grocery orders frequently failed to turn up, or items were missing and I had been charged for them. Simply too much hassle. I can see this new venture being an even bigger disaster.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    If you want to increase spending on the high street, instead of wasting money on gimmicks we need wages to increase.

    My friends on benefits have much newer and later gadgets than anyone I work with.

    I buy all my goods (clothes, make-up, gadgets) abroad now when I manage to go on holiday, its too expensive here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    @24. Miss Ingoff - you are still assuming that people will buy a smartphone to use such apps.

    As for your example - the online shopping business is also used by a minority, not the majority of people.

    But the media and co. would have you believe otherwise.

    You are flogging a dead horse with that "the majority might buy" thought, because the economy is not sustaining that thought.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    22 ravenmorpheus2k
    If Tesco sell a can of beans at below cost, in the hope that you'll buy a pint of milk and loaf as well while you're in there, that's a loss leader. This is more akin to their investing heavily in their online grocery business in the early days. They gambled and won; those who invest in this are doing the same. If it proves to be a gimmick, it will be a short-lived one.


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