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Public Works: The Subway Supermarket

The supermarket shelf of the future may be two-dimensional.

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A virtual grocery store in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of PRNewsFoto/Titan.

Sick of beef jerky and Skittles for dinner, but too tired for shopping after work? What if there were a service that let you order your groceries while commuting, so you could have them delivered when you get home?

That’s what online grocer Peapod is doing in the United States. Last year they set up virtual grocery stores at stations along the SEPTA commuter rail system in Philadelphia in the form of billboards that replicate supermarket shelves full of selected consumables.

Commuters with smartphones can download the Peapod app and scan the bar codes of appealing comestibles for later delivery. The app itself offers a much wider variety of products to choose from.

The service is convenient for people who’d rather not spend their precious leisure time food shopping, and of course Peapod benefits from a captive market of consumers woozy and starved after a day at the office.

Less than an year in, the idea has been successful enough to be rolled out to subways and commuter rail lines in seven other U.S. locations, including Boston and Washington, D.C.

Peapod isn’t the first company to offer groceries on the go. In 2011, Home Plus, the South Korean subsidiary of British supermarket giant Tesco, began selling virtual groceries in the Seoul subway. The idea took off, with the company reporting a 130 per cent jump in online sales in the first couple months after the launch.

Online grocery shopping is already well established in Toronto, so implementing this would be a matter of some enterprising retailer working out the details. One minor caveat: although GTA commuters would probably jump at the chance to order baguettes and butter chicken lasagna while waiting for their rides, the present lack of Wi-Fi or cell service in our subway system would limit the snack surfing to the above-ground parts of TTC and GO stations. But the TTC is working on bringing cell service to subway platforms, so this idea could get easier to implement in the not-too-distant future.

CORRECTION: February 28, 2013, 11:45 AM Due to an editing error, the photo caption in this post originally stated that the photo was taken in Chicago. That is incorrect, and has now been fixed.

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