After successful trials in South Korea, where similar digital vending machines are now permanently installed in subway stations, Tesco has brought its interactive virtual store concept to the UK. At the moment, it is just in the testing phase, to see if the British public warm to the concept as much as its Korean counterparts, so is currently based solely in Gatwick Airport's North Terminal.
Holidaymakers can use the giant touchscreens - of which there are ten, scattered about the terminal - to order their grocery shopping so that it is ready to be delivered or collected when they return. They work in combination with the Tesco mobile application for iPhone or Android, so users do need an online account with the retailer.
However, to sign up is a doddle, with pamphlets everywhere explaining the process and a couple of iPads housed in stands to help input details for the first time.
Once signed up, the system is as easy to use as any barcode reader. The Tesco mobile app has always offered the ability to add items to a customer's online basket by simply using the device's camera to scan a product code, and it is this mode that is exploited to its fullest by the virtual shopping idea.
On the installed big screens themselves, users can scroll through shelves of a virtual fridge and cupboard to reveal 80 products in total - each chosen by Tesco as the most likely to be needed when someone returns home, including milk, bread, etc.
Each product comes with its own barcode, and using the Tesco app, customers can simply scan the one they want which will place it into their online shopping basket automatically. Admittedly, this could be done the usual way, through the app itself, but the virtual screen offers a much more visual representation of real shopping and saves from searching through the 20,000 plus items that are generally available.
Of course, the customer could also add additional items that aren't on the interactive billboards, but that somewhat defeats the point. This endeavor is designed to offer with the basics - the sort of things that won't last in the fridge for a fortnight away, or comfort food and toilet rolls.
Pocket-lint gave the "come home to a full fridge" concept a whirl, when it was invited to be one of the first to trial the system in Gatwick Airport, and we have to say that it works very well. You may need to move your barcode scanner/smartphone a little to ensure the code has been read correctly, but there's very little else to it.
We couldn't help wonder if the system would be better suited to train or tube stations in the UK, much like the Korean version. We can see a huge benefit to consumers who just want to scan a couple of quick items that they could pick up or have delivered that evening after returning from work (if Tesco adopts same day deliveries over here). But, as an exercise in educating people to try the Tesco mobile application, let's just say that there's an awful lot of footfall through Gatwick Airport. And the virtual store screens are bold, brash and very striking.
Whether this idea makes it out of the airport, we'll have to wait and see. Tesco told us that it really is a data gathering exploit initially. The company wants to see how many people try out the screens, with statistics coming from the touchscreen interaction.
It is positive, however, that wherever it decides to go with virtual shopping devices, the smartphone will be pivotal. Tesco's senior marketing manager Mandy Minichiello explained to Pocket-lint that the company's own research has suggested that by 2016, 90 per cent of all mobile phones will be smartphones, and the supermarket chain that finds the ideal way to offer the richest mobile experience is likely to reap mighty rewards.
The virtual store could well be an important step for Tesco in realising that goal.
The Tesco mobile application is available to download from iTunes for iPhone and iPod touch, and Google Play for Android. If you are travelling through Gatwick Airport North Terminal soon, be on the look out for the screens.
What do you think of the virtual vending machine? Let us know in the comments below...