Virtual grocery kiosk taking off at London Airport

| by Christopher Hall
Virtual grocery kiosk taking off at London Airport

U.K.-based retail and grocery giant Tesco says the new digital signage kiosks it's piloting are a way to make sure travelers coming home from holiday don't come home to an empty refrigerator, or one full of food that's gone off.

But if its new "virtual grocery store" pilot at London's Gatwick Airport takes off, it could mean more than just that to the future of grocery shopping and mobile retail.

Imagine being at the mall and realizing you forgot to get milk — and being able to go by a digital signage screen in the mall to buy some and have it delivered to your home, without having to make a side trip to the grocery. Or imagine seeing a new pair of shoes on a digital display as you walk down the street, and deciding to buy them on your smartphone right then and there.

Tesco recently rolled out what it's calling the U.K.'s first interactive virtual grocery store in Gatwick's North Terminal. The Gatwick virtual grocery store pilot is basically a large digital signage kiosk, a "virtual fridge," on which shoppers can browse through a range of everyday products to buy, selecting items via smartphone.

Travelers begin by scrolling through the "moving" screens — touch interactive digital displays on which they can slide from screen to screen by hand — on the virtual fridges. By scanning the barcodes with theirtesco virtual grocerysmartphones they can add their chosen products to their online baskets, book a home delivery time slot and check out. Their shopping will then be delivered when they return from their trip.

There will be four interactive fridges in the virtual store pilot and six digital sites positioned around the departure lounge for passengers to use. The kiosks feature around 80 products, chosen to enable customers to make a full shop for staples (milk, eggs, bread, cheese, pasta, sauce, chicken, cereal, fruit, vegetables, etc.), according to Tesco.

To use the digital displays, customers first have to download the Tesco app from the App Store, Google Play or Android Market to scan products using their smartphone, and to register with

The Gatwick opening builds on Tesco's launch of what it dubbed the world's first virtual store in South Korea last year, an innovation which generated 25 million online posts around the globe. The Korean virtual store allowed commuters to shop in subways and at bus stops by pointing their mobile phones at billboards. Tesco is now piloting the concept for the first time in the U.K., but this time using interactive digital displays.

"Our business in Korea is teaching us a lot about how customers and technology are transforming shopping. It gives us a unique window into the future and the chance to try out exciting new concepts," Tesco's Internet Retailing Director, Ken Towle, said in the announcement from Tesco. "The virtual store blends clicks and bricks, bringing together our love of browsing with the convenience of online shopping. It's a chance to showcase what we can do to the 30,000 people a day who will depart from Gatwick's North Terminal, many of whom will need to fill their fridges when they get home, and we're looking forward to hearing what they think."

The virtual store will be open for business in Gatwick Airport's North Terminal departure lounge during the airport's two busiest weeks of the year, Aug. 6-19. Tesco staff members will be on hand to help customers with the scanning and ordering process on their smartphones.

In a article about the pilot, the BBC asks, "(b)ut is this just a gimmick, or will the idea take off?"

According to the BBC, retailers are scrambling to catch up to the changes in how people shop brought on by the rapid growth of smartphones, calling m-commerce the "fastest growing area of retail." The article cites the Interactive Media in Retail Group, which says m-commerce should make up about 15 percent of all online sales by year's end.

"We don't think it's a gimmick — it's a taste of the future," Mandy Minichiello, marketing manager for, told the BBC. "In 2016, about 90 percent of all mobiles will be smartphones ... We're doing this as a trial to try to get some customer feedback. We're keen to make customers lives as easy as possible. Increasingly, they want to shop on the go."

And a mobile retail strategy consultanting executive told the news agency that the retail industry is undergoing a rapid metamorphosis toward m-commerce.

"Retailers are struggling to keep up," said Matt Cockett, vice president of sales at the Velti consultantcy. "A mobile strategy is key for any retailer because the revenue has more than doubled in the past 12 months."

Watch a video about the virtual grocery store below:

Read more about transportation and travel.

Topics: Airport Kiosks, Customer Experience, Transportation / Travel

Christopher Hall

Christopher is the managing director of the Interactive Customer Experience Association and former editor of A longtime freelance writer and reporter, he's bringing a fresh perspective and critical take on the industry.

wwwView Christopher Hall's profile on LinkedIn

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