A blog post by Lina Arseneault, Senior Director of Marketing at AirTight Networks.

What if companies could go beyond merely advertising to consumers or even trying to “engage” them in social media, and actually sell to them at the moment they are ready to buy, wherever they are?

New technologies are opening up a world of new possibilities, enabling leading companies to reimagine how they reach and sell to consumers.

In South Korea, commuters in the subway system are greeted with an unusual sight these days: a virtual supermarket storefront. Floor-to-ceiling kiosks are filled with lifelike images of the products they typically buy from the supermarket and which are arranged in the same position and height as they typically encounter on the store shelf.  Consumers simply scan the “shelves” and when they find the item they want, they click on the quick response (QR) code with their Smartphone. When complete, the system tallies up the purchases, debits the customer’s account, and delivers it to their home later that day, in time for dinner. A refrigerated storage unit is provided, if needed.

The virtual shopping project was the brainchild of British multinational grocery giant, Tesco, and its Homeplus chain of stores, which wanted to grow market share without adding more stores in an already dense marketplace.

The experiment was a resounding success. Over 10,000 shoppers bought from the online Homeplus store using Smartphones. The number of Homeplus registered shoppers rose by 76 percent, and online sales increased by 130 percent.

The Third Shelf

Doug Stephens, known as the Retail Prophet, has described this paradigm embraced by Tesco as the third shelf, which he describes in his groundbreaking book, The Retail Revival (reviewed earlier on this AirTight blog). Stephens’ basic premise is that the retail business has operated for years on the idea of “two shelves:” the store shelf, which consumers peruse to find goods they want at the price they are willing to pay; and the second shelf, which is the location in the consumer’s home or workplace where the product is deposited. According to Stephens, while this has been the main shopping paradigm for many years, today it is changing:

“With technology’s unprecedented ability to create functional digital stores that can be strategically positioned along the consumer’s path to purchase, leading retailers have discovered the third shelf – a place that is not the store and not the customer’s home, but a third and wonderfully appropriate location for its consumers to shop.”

Third Shelf: Free from Physical Restraints

The key point about the third shelf is that it frees retail from the previous physical constraints. No longer must you locate your store in the shopping center, or mall, or downtown. Now, the issue becomes understanding your customer’s path to purchase and being sure you are ready to serve them at that moment and place when they are thinking about your product and ready to buy.

Proctor & Gamble is attempting to answer this question with a new concept it is testing in New York City. P&G has placed images of its most popular products on the sides of trucks that tour around high-foot-traffic locales in the city with large QR codes beside each product. Consumers can purchase immediately by scanning the QR codes with their Smatphones. Fulfillment is handled by Walmart, with free delivery to the customer’s home on orders exceeding $45.

The third shelf can be anywhere, even the home. Evian water created a device that allows its Parisian consumers, with the touch of a button, to order more mineral water directly from Evian. The device simply attaches magnetically to their fridge and, when pushed, places a direct order with Evian for delivery to the consumer’s home.

It could also be at the beach where, one day soon as fulfillment speeds its delivery capabilities, a person who loves the ocean but is highly sensitive to sun, arrives at the beach having forgotten his SPF-50 beach umbrella. Rather than purchase a flimsy local umbrella, he brings up a website such as sunclothes-retailer Coolibar on his Smartphone, orders the umbrella, specifies extra-fast delivery, and has it delivered within 2 hours—saving his next few days at the beach.

Now that’s a hot way to insert yourself into the consumer’s path to purchase.