Walmart's E-Grocer Plans Half-Mile-Long Virtual Stores

As if to prove that it is possible to take a good idea too far, on Monday (Oct. 15), Walmart-owned Chinese E-Grocer Yihaodian stretched the virtual supermarket pioneered by Tesco way beyond its reasonable limit.

Tesco, you'll recall, put billboards full of products on South Korean subway platforms, so consumers could use their phones to click on QR codes and order groceries for delivery while they waited. Nothing so small-minded for Yihaodianmdash;it plans to create 1,000 "augmented reality" supermarkets (you'll have to use a smartphone to see them) along streets in four Chinese cities, and each store will cover 1,200 square meters (more than 12,000 square feet) of wall or fence space.

That means the 1,000 items in each store will stretch out on a virtual space that's the size of a billboard six feet high and half a mile long. We're all for a healthy product selection in E-Commerce, but that's a long way to walk while staring into the screen of a camera.

What's the point? Tesco's effort—along with copycat Peapod—leveraged subway and train stations, where shoppers have nothing to do for chunks of time. Putting virtual grocery shelves there—which were visible to the naked eye—made sense in context.

And when the UK's Debenham's toyed with truly invisible stores, it featured just a couple of items—such as a designer gown that shoppers could interact with and get pictures taken of themselves while wearing the garment.

But why walk in a non-existent store, where items can only be seen through the mobile screen? Doesn't E-Commerce do that so much more efficiently? If there's a point to this trial, we haven't figured it out yet.