Buying by Phone in eBay’s London Store

QR Code Shopping Will Frustrate Some Shoppers

Last month I visited eBay’s Christmas store in central London. The company’s first “bricks and mortar” shop in the UK was only there for five days, as part of a trial. But it wasn’t a shop in the conventional sense: customers bought products by scanning a QR code with their phones, rather than taking them to the counter and paying for them.

ebay_shopInside the shop, samples of each item on sale were displayed in three rooms, broadly separated into gifts for men, women and children. If customers wanted to make a purchase, they held up their mobile phones and scanned a QR code tag attached to each item. The QR code provided a link to the product’s page on eBay’s Web site. Those without a smartphone could borrow an HTC Flyer tablet from the store.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time mobile Internet shopping with QR codes has been used. In South Korea, Home Plus has been using the same technique in subways, although its advertisements display only pictures of the items. The idea is that commuters can do their food shopping on their way home without having to visit the real supermarket. In the UK, supermarket chain John Lewis trialled a similar initiative at its Waitrose store in Brighton in December 2011. It provided a window of “virtual” products, including the chain’s 30 top-selling Christmas gifts.

At this stage it’s a little early to see what might have come from the eBay trial. The number of people making online payments from mobile devices is growing every year, so it’s not surprising to see eBay testing the waters during one of the busiest shopping periods. In 2011 PayPal reported that mobile payments jumped more than 500 percent over Thanksgiving in the US.

Yet my visit to the eBay store left me mostly unconvinced. I was happy to scan the QR codes for the first few objects, but the process became increasingly tedious as I went around the shop. Even if I just wanted to know the price, I still had to scan the tag. I’m not sure the average shopper would be comfortable with this.

I have the feeling that the eBay store was more about the company’s desire to establish a physical presence and increase its profile than about generating revenue from a new form of distribution. We expect to see more online brands follow suit this year and set up shops. Like eBay’s, not all of them will be about taking money over a counter; we expect to see customer service and support locations, as well as collection points (see CCS Insight Predictions for 2012 and Beyond for more details).

Nevertheless, I’ve no doubt that QR codes will continue to be used for a small number of mobile payment services, especially as there’s no established method and retailers continue to test different forms of mobile payments.