One Of Out Three Retailers Screw Up QR Codes. They Are A <i>Lot</i> Harder To Use Than They Look

With all of the recent challenges retailers—including Macy's and HSN—have had with QR codes, it's not a surprise that many chains have underestimated how complex and difficult those little dot-filled squares can be.

It's not really that QR codes are so complicated as much as it is that they are different. The problem is that they are misleadingly similar enough to retail-friendly barcodes that they lull many into thinking QR codes can be handled the same way. As chains have tried pushing the images beyond posters and into devices such as televisions and magazines, they have slammed into the logistical problems new technology brings.

For example: Where should the QR codes be placed? Should it be near the bottom of the screen? Well, what if the consumer time-shifts with a DVR or Tivo? A part of the code could be overridden by screen buttons. Place it in a glossy magazine? Good choice, but you have to steer clear of the page side toward any glued (perfect-bound) gutter or else consumers won't be able to get a full scan of the image.

At one major QR code firm—Scanbuy—almost one out of every three retailers have run into various problems, often dealing with logistics that someone at the chain hadn't thought through, said David Javitch, Scanbuy's VP of Marketing. "Maybe two-thirds have done a pretty good job," he said.

The biggest problem Javitch cites from working with retailers is the lack of a clean action when someone clicks on the code. "For many, we've seen no call to action, no nothing. It's just sitting there," he said. "What is the value you are providing your audience? It should take you to a mobile site with the ability to buy [the item] right then."

Even when customers understand the QR codes and how to work with them—a definite minority these days—the codes need to do something concrete, and do it quickly. A popular early use of the codes has been on posters, which is good, but Javitch has seen a lot of those signs placed in subways. In New York City, he said, that's often a bad idea, with just AT&T and T-Mobile customers able to get an underground connection—and even then it's dicey.

The subway, and other dead-cell-zone areas, could be addressed through some type of a "store now and display later" approach, but Javitch said it may be too early for such a method.

That store-and-display later "is something [Scanbuy is] probably going to be doing" in the future, he said, but newcomers to QR codes are too impatient and too inclined to conclude that a lack of immediate response means the system isn't working. "People want to see it right away," Javitch said. Some systems today have the ability to access failed QR code efforts through the mobile device's history function, but it's not typically automatic and it's too much to ask early consumers to do. That may work well down the road, though.

The lack of consumer patience can be a good thing, if the system is programmed to provide not only a concrete immediate action—for a movie promo, for example, that action might be to run a trailer or to immediately purchase tickets—but also a sharp discount for doing so. In fact, it could create some QR friends.

Another untapped area is CRM, along with aggregated marketing data, by leveraging the geolocation functions of the phone with the QR code and then tracking the immediate actions. Although this area could be delicately handled via an opt-in process, it's also a function best left for later deployment. The new user wants speed, tangible rewards and nothing scary. Halloween's imminence notwithstanding, creepy is an attribute that early QR code deployment should avoid.