HSN Advances QR Codes To TV—And Then Learns Why They Are So Frustrating

HSN last Friday (Oct. 7) took the next logical step with mobile-friendly QR codes by placing them in a corner on the television screen, giving high-definition TV viewers the chance to learn more about the products being shown. In addition, HSN cleverly tried to avoid the QR snafus that other retailers—such as Macy's—have fallen into by using its on-air hosts to teach visitors how to use the codes.

But the limited four-day experiment also demonstrated the many QR drawbacks that retailers have to struggle with. A reporter for Forbes, for example, tried making a purchase during the event through a QR code and found that her couch was 10 feet away from the screen but that she had to get up to scan the code from five feet away. People who successfully navigated the QR code got to an ordinary Web site page. No discount, no special reward. And how long would the code be displayed?

Then there's the learning curve. HSN only had the codes up for four days, meaning that by the time the word got out widely, the images were gone. And when we say "gone," we mean "gone." The explanation of QR on the homepage is gone and a site search for "QR" yielded nothing. One question in the "frequently asked questions" discussed QR codes in general, and then told readers that "to obtain a QR code reader, visit your smartphone's app store to download a QR code reading application." This assumes the reader knows how to do that. It goes on to say that, only "If you are unable to locate a QR code reader" should customers "visit Scanlife.com from your mobile browser."

But how many customers would think to search a FAQ? A call to the HSN customer service helpdesk delivered a call center staffer who said she had no idea what a QR code was. After some explanation, she transferred the call to the HSN.com customer service group. That person also didn't know what a QR code was, but after two holds for a supervisor briefing, she said that customers should type "mobile"—not "QR"—in the site's search engine. That brought customers to a mobile stage, which had one small text link for "About QR Codes." (And, yes, the "About QR Codes" doesn't go to a page that describes QR codes, even though such a page exists at HSN.com. That link takes users to a page for Scanlife, a QR code vendor, where they can download Scanlife's QR reader app.)

The irony is that consumers are supposed to type in "mobile," when there's not much reason for them to know to do that. More to the point, a QR code really shouldn't be on a chain's mobile site, unless it expects consumers to have two smartphones—one for each hand. The first smartphone would have to display the QR code and the second smartphone would need to look at it and then scan and interpret it. Therefore, the page where HSN's mobile sites are discussed would seem an odd choice for a QR link.

This confusion is understandable and explains much of why consumers—even young consumers—can't seem to figure out QR codes. All of those issues notwithstanding, QR codes have huge potential.All of those issues notwithstanding, QR codes have huge potential. Indeed, one of the most well-thought-out retail apps of any type was a recent QR experiment by Tesco, where the British chain placed the codes next to every product in pictures of its aisles, pictures that were reproduced on the walls of subway stations. Customers had time to kill while waiting for their trains, and the codes were large, stationary and stayed there for as long as the customer needed. And the links didn't go to informational Web pages as much as they enabled instant purchases, which were then delivered to the customer.

HSN's rationale for its too-brief QR code experiment was right on track, though. "Incorporating QR codes into our television programming allows us to provide viewers with a quick and easy path to purchase and get more information about the item they are watching on TV," said a statement HSN sent that was attributed to HSN's Digital Commerce EVP, Jill Braff. "QR codes will be available on our HD channel, which currently reaches approximately 43 million households. We are finding that more and more customers are using their mobile devices as a second screen while they are watching our broadcast, so it just makes sense."

HSN hasn't released any figures about how much of an impact the QR codes had on sales during the four-day trial, although we have a hint that it may not have been huge. The QR vendor HSN linked to, Scanbuy, didn't know precisely how much traffic HSN sent to it during the trial, according to Scanbuy Marketing VP David Javitch, but it wasn't sufficient for his team to notice. "It's not like we've seen a huge uptick in traffic," he said.

One of the reasons QR codes make so much sense is the huge CRM implications. It potentially extends the "capture every move you make" concept from Web analytics to TV, where individual customers (via their registered phones) are logged every time they want to know more about an item they see.

The potential is absolutely there, but only if the chain pushes just a little more to truly make it as effortless as possible. First, the QR codes should be larger, so they can be shot from a typical TV viewing distance. Second, make the search simple. Using a shortened URL or at least a very easy URL to remember, such as hsn.com/QR. Third, educate all customer service people to understand QR and make it a prominent part of every Web page, especially the homepage. (It had been on the homepage, but only during the four-day trial.)

Most critically, once customers complete the process, give them something valuable, far beyond what they could get by clicking from a traditional Web site. Not forever, but for the first six to 12 months, until clicking on the QR code becomes second nature.

HSN is considering enabling the QR codes to instantly place a purchase order for the item—sort of a one-click approach—but that wasn't done for this trial. Presumably, safeguards would be in place to prevent inadvertent purchases.

There's little question that QR codes, when perfected, have huge potential. Beyond recent security concerns, most of these matters can be addressed by making these processes easier. Once resolved, the codes could translate into Quick Revenue. But if rollouts continue to be this cumbersome, it might initially stand for Quite Ridiculous.

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