People’s Insights Volume 1, Issue 50: Walmart & Mattel’s Virtual Toy Store

What is the Virtual Toy Store?

In November 2012, Walmart and Mattel lined two walls of an underground walkway in downtown Toronto with images of toys and invited passers-by to purchase them on-the-go using their smart phones.

Photo: CNW Group/Mattel Canada, Inc. via

Chantal Tode summarized:

“The program will run for four weeks during the busy holiday shopping season and will showcase Mattel toy brands such as Barbie, Hot Wheels, Fisher-Price and Thomas & Friends.”

How does it work?

To make a purchase, people scanned the toy’s QR code with their smart phone and were re-directed to Walmart’s website where they could enter payment details and avail of free home shipping.

This video explains the process:

Virtual toy store debuts in downtown Toronto

Located where the people are

Located along a retail concourse and commuter hub, the virtual store enabled Walmart to reach a large audience of urban Canadians who might not otherwise shop at Walmart.

Photo: Deborah Baic / The Globe and Mail

Blogger Andrew Livingstone noted:

“Located in the PATH, the city’s sprawling downtown underground shopping mall, the virtual toy store will allow consumers to scan a QR Code with their mobile device and purchase toys from the Wal-Mart website without having to set foot in an actual store.”

Writer Carly Lewis pointed out:

“Currently there are no Walmart retail locations in Toronto’s business core, so the virtual toy store is an attempt to reach urban consumers who do their shopping in the city.”

On the other hand, some people, like digital signage and DOOH professional Dave Hayne shared a different point of view:

“I have my doubts about the take-up rates because of the dynamics of where it is located. There are MASSES of people, but they are all moving to work or to the commuter trains. This is not a place with ANY dwell time.”

Walmart estimates 41,000 people passed by the virtual toy store every day of the campaign.

A convenient way to shop

Moms and bloggers responded favorably to the concept of a virtual toy store, highlighting that it helps them skip lines, avoid lugging around shopping bags, and immediately recognize the hottest toys, all on the go.

Mommy blogger Carrie Anne wrote:

“Whether you are heading home from a late night meeting or stepping out for a quick bite of lunch, the Mattel and Walmart Canada Pop-Up Shop will be open for your shopping needs. No need to carry packages home with free shipping from Walmart Canada.

“The best part about the Mattel and Walmart Canada virtual Pop-Up Toy Shop is not having to step foot into a toy store during the holiday season. Now that’s a gift I can enjoy.”

Blogger Andrea Allen remarked:

“A digital marketing campaign that allows me to purchase Christmas presents without having to enter a hot, overly-crowded mall while I’m on my usual commute? That’s an idea that certainly puts me in the Christmas spirit.”

“Perfect for Christmas”

Marketers too responded well to the program, noting that it eliminates retail costs, including rent, maintenance and staff salaries, is easy to scale and helps reach crowds during the shopping season.

Marketing professional Chris Reed wrote:

“This not only eliminates retail space costs from rent to maintenance it also eliminates staff and all associated costs. You need many less staff to work in a warehouse where customer service skills are not needed than you do in a retail store.

“Simple and inevitably the future of retail. The costs and the ROI stack up like no other retail outlet ever could. Stores like this are perfect for xmas time when it’s all about the ROI on space and speed of movement in store to drive up seasonal sales.”

Dmitry Sokolov cautioned that virtual stores don’t guarantee sales, but do help break through the clutter:

“An equally important (if not primary) goal of this installation is brand awareness (for classic and .ca Walmart properties). Given the single-digit uptake rate on any QR code-driven initiative, expecting such initiative to deliver ROI solely through revenue via product sales would be ludicrous.

“Instead, the install successfully breaks [through] the clutter of traditional advertising murals that frequent Union Stn. by offering a novel approach to the traditional billboard.”

Tailored to the new age consumer

The virtual toy store caters to time-crunched consumers, who own smart phones, are comfortable with online shopping and open to the idea of purchasing products through their mobile phones.

Melissa Chau, Brand Manager at Mattel Canada, said:

“As Canadians become increasingly comfortable with e-commerce, we see mobile-commerce taking off; in fact, the most recent statistics show that four out of five consumers use smartphones to shop.”

Technology opens possibilities

Marketers believe the interactivity and appeal of virtual stores can be enhanced through technology, by targeting ads better, making QR codes more attractive and changing products based on data.

Photo: Andrew Livingstone /Toronto Star via

Chris Reed noted:

“Everything is there for you as long as the adverts are targeted in the right way.”

Ari Fuld, a community manager at Visualead (which makes visual QR codes), commented:

 “The only issue that has to be dealt with is the generic, unappealing, uncreative appearance of the QR Code. Time to turn every QR Code into a visual QR Code and design codes that were made to interact with humans not only machines.”  

The CodeZ QR team is optimistic about the scope of virtual stores and interactivity, and blogged:

“Chances are these types of stores are going to become less and less of a rarity in the coming years, so it could get interesting to see what kinds of creativity marketers come up with. With changing products, it will also be interesting to see when screens allowing companies to change out the products on display will enter into the picture of things.”

Measurement and analysis of data can help marketers optimize the choice of products and time of display to boost sales, and seamless integration of social media with the mobile shopping experience can help generate e-word of mouth.

A new way to shop, and engage

2012 has seen a rise in similar virtual stores across the globe, and marketers speculate that this hybrid of real life meets digital life will shape the way people shop and the way brands engage with people.


In a blog post covering a similar virtual store by Tesco in the UK, David Cardinal remarked:

“Taking the experience one step further, customers can also scan the barcode from any product they have at hand to place an order for one. Imagine being able to instantly reorder your food and office supplies the instant you ran out of them, instead of having to remember to put it on a list, for a future trip to the store.”

Nidhi Makhija, a member of the MSLGROUP Insights Network, commented:

 “Once brands begin to see success in this hybrid commerce model, the next logical step is to further explore the world of converging realities to target and engage people who are on-the-go. After all, people are shifting from laptops to on-the-go devices such as smart phones and tablets, and brand programs in 2013 will need to adapt to this reality.”

Brands have experimented with and opened virtual stores in South Korea (Tesco-HomePlus), Canada (online retailer and P&G), the U.S. (, Walmart and P&G), the UK (Tesco, Argos), Germany (Adidas), Sweden (Jetshop) and Ireland (Argos).

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