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One of Yihaodian’s augmented reality, virtual supermarkets (image via

Today China’s biggest online food retailer, Yihaodian, announced one of the most amazingly weird plans I’ve ever heard: The company will roll out 1,000 virtual supermarkets around the country. The stores — spanning 1,200 square meters (roughly 12,900 square feet) in virtual space and stocking about 1,000 items each — will “exist” in blank city spaces, and shoppers can find and “enter” them using their smartphones and augmented reality. The groceries will then be delivered to people at home, as if they had just ordered everything online. Internet meets virtual reality meets IRL meets WTF.

According to Tech in Asia, Yihaodian has done virtual stores before, but those were based on QR codes on posters in subway stations, which to me makes a lot more sense: you grocery shop while waiting for your train home, cutting some time off the end of your day. As for these new stores, collectively titled “Unlimited Yihaodian,” I can’t quite wrap my head around them: How do you know they’re there? Do you purposefully go out to visit one? Why would you go to a virtual grocery store when you could either shop online from home or visit a real one? Are there lines for checkout, like in a real supermarket, just for the hell of it?

Steven Millward at Tech in Asia writes that this new kind of store “cuts out the tedium of making hundreds of clicks on a website or within an app to buy common foods and household items,” but I’m not convinced. I just keep seeing in my head a large group of people standing around in an empty plaza, all of them silently holding up and moving their phones around. Like I said, amazingly weird.

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