CHICAGO — You wouldnt think picking up milk at the L station would be a good idea.
But online grocer Peapod has turned a busy Chicago train station into a virtual supermarket aisle, enabling commuters to use their smartphones to scan and buy any of 70 items on the fly.
Appearing overnight on once-barren walls, seven-foot-tall virtual shelves line both sides of a 60-foot tunnel, filled with everything from paper towels and diapers to fresh produce. Android and iPhone users can download a free Peapod mobile app to load up their electronic grocery carts for delivery the next day.
Chicago, Peapods home base and its largest market, is the second U.S. city to roll out the interactive supermarket shelves, which first appeared at Philadelphia train stations last month. Other Chicago locations may be added, and other cities down the line, depending on what happens during a 12-week run at the station, which averages 17,640 commuters and potential shoppers each weekday.
It kind of changes the game for the out-of-home advertising medium, almost as a kind of service rather than branding, said Dave Etherington, senior vice president of marketing and mobile for Titan. The New York-based media firm specializes in out-of-home advertising, and it created the campaign for Peapod.
A combination of advertising and retailing, the first virtual supermarket was rolled out last summer by British-based chain Tesco, which set up shop at subway stations in Seoul, South Korea.
Skokie, Ill.-based Peapod took the idea as a promotional launching pad for its recent expansion into the Philadelphia market. In April, the interactive billboards were placed at 15 train station platforms across the city. The displays were winnowed down to nine locations, which will run through early June.
Response to the ads has been strong, according to Etherington, in terms both of introducing the service, and of selling the items on-site to virtual shoppers waiting to catch trains.
It does a fantastic job of branding, but in a very transparent, measurable way, it ships products and it generates revenue, Etherington said.
The next wave
Founded in Evanston in 1989, Peapod pioneered the concept of online grocery shopping, long before many people even knew what the Internet was. Perhaps ahead of its time, the publicly-traded company struggled during the dotcom bust, and was acquired by Netherlands-based Royal Ahold in 2001.
Peapod serves 24 U.S. markets and has delivered 21 million grocery orders in just over two decades.
With Internet shopping now fully integrated into the retail landscape, the company introduced its first mobile app about a year ago, trying to get out in front of the next wave in marketing. Used primarily by existing customers to re-order items called trash scanning the mobile app has new utility with the virtual supermarket billboards, both as a lure for new customers and as a way for customers to fill out shopping lists on an ongoing basis.
Grocery shopping doesnt necessarily happen the way it used to, said Mike Brennan, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Peapod. Its becoming more of a task that happens in multiple steps throughout the week.
The shelves were fully stocked at the State Street L last week as the first wave of commuters perused the virtual supermarket aisle on their way through the station. Some swiveled, others stayed focused on the light at the end of the tunnel, and a few stopped to shop, tossing their dog-eared lists away for good.
Writings on the wall
Many commuters took notice of the very realistic depiction of typical grocery store shelves. Items included Huggies Diapers, Coke, Lysol, Swiffer Wet Jet, Bounty paper towels, Barilla ready-to-heat pasta, and fresh produce such as apples and bananas. Like a real supermarket, shoppers may need to kneel slightly to select items from the lower shelves, but most wont need a stock boy to reach the top shelf with their smart phone scanners.
Getting started is pretty easy, even for the technophobe, with instructions spelled out on the wall itself.
Making a purchase requires a smartphone and bar code scanner app. First, the shopper downloads a free Peapod app on the wall. Buying requires pointing at the item and scanning its barcode, which shows the price. Push the buy button, and the item is loaded into a virtual shopping cart. Checkout with another click, and the items will show up at your door within a day.
Attorney Virginia Marino, 28, was headed to her office at noon after working from her Chicago home during the morning. She glanced from side to side with interest as she made her way down the tunnel, but wondered whether she would be able to shop during her normal commute.
I typically take the L during rush hour, so I dont know that I would take the time to really walk by with my phone and shop because Im trying to get home or Im trying to go to the office, Marino said. And theres no way youre stopping because of the crowd its just not going to happen.