Target Using QR Codes To Enable Surreptitious Santas

Target on Wednesday (Oct. 3) unveiled an in-store chain-wide QR trial that will simultaneously test almost unlimited inventory of a handful of the season's hottest toys and whether shoppers would like to avoid purchase lines in exchange for multi-day shipping delays, in addition to assessing a suggestion that this option can be used to hide gift purchases from curious young eyes. Not bad for some cheap QR code stickers.

Given all of those interesting attributes being tested, the trial—which starts October 14—is going to have to extrapolate data from an unusually small product sample: 20 toys that will be featured on endcaps. Granted, those are literally the expected 20 hottest toys from this upcoming holiday season. But it's still only 20. That's statistically tiny within a store with an average of 70,000 SKUs.

The idea is that shoppers will scan the endcap displays with a smartphone and then the product will be sent to the shopper's home—or any destination desired, such as the relative's house where they expect to be on the day of gift opening—for free.

The free shipping is a very nice touch, as it negates one of the two downsides to in-store online purchases: shipping costs and shipping delays. " standard shipping is 3 to 5 days and that's our default checkout setting for online orders," said Target spokesperson Eddie Baeb late on Wednesday. "I'm still researching to determine/confirm 100 percent that standard shipping is the option that will be used with this campaign when it goes live October 14."

But the inventory aspect of this trial is potentially the most interesting. This is a big step beyond "if we don't have it in stock, just buy it from our Web site." The idea of scanning a QR code that automatically gets the customer to a specific part of the site, autopopulates the scanned product and then automatically includes the free shipping code radically accelerates and facilitates the in-store purchase process.

The shopper still must manually key in the desired address and payment data. That task is hardly holiday ho-ho-ho happy when it means thumbing info into a smartphone in the middle of the pushing and shoving of holiday crowds.

The question being tested: Will customers see this QR code entry into the Web site as fast and easy? Will it address the problem of stores running out of precisely the most popular gift items?

Will it be a nice way to let shoppers who just want that one gift to avoid long checkout lines? The free shipping comes back into play here, too. If customers simply purchase the toys online from home, they would have to pay shipping. So will this freebie give those desktop shoppers a reason to come into the store instead? And, once there, perhaps see something else they like?

It's indeed a fascinating concept. But limiting the trial to 20 items seems to undercut the analytical value of whatever data is generated. With an average of 70,000 products, would a QR trial of 7,000 products have been more helpful? Heck, how about 700 products?If Target had such QR codes on a healthy percentage of its offering, would it see a behavioral change that 20 toys wouldn't deliver? Given that this is a chain-wide effort, it was no small endeavor. And given the extensive logistics involved, wouldn't there have been some efficiencies in sharply increasing the tested items? Perhaps the 500 hottest items throughout the store?

There's also a potential downside to this trial. Let's say a shopper really needs to buy a MEGA Brands HALO 4 Warthog Vehicle or a Hasbro Beyblade: Metal Fury Destroyer Dome. (No kidding. Those are actually two of the 20 hottest toys.) She fights holiday traffic to get to a shopping center with a Target and then stalks shoppers when they leave to steal a parking space. She goes into the Target and sees the desired toy at the endcap.

It's certainly a plus that she can scan with her phone, tap in her address and payment data, and then leave the store. But is that necessarily good? Clearly there are other items on her holiday lists. Is discouraging that shopper from browsing further a good move? Sure, she could certainly scan that item and then continue to shop. But the fun of this approach is scanning and then running out the door.

Also, Target, are you sure you want to get your shoppers more comfortable with scanning barcodes and QR codes with their phones and then leaving and waiting for their packages to be delivered? If so, Amazon just might be adding Target to its Christmas card list.

To be fair, it does cut both ways. At least this way, Target is showing the ease of having doing the sending rather than Amazon. But once the shopper's comfortable with the action, you have no control of who will do the delivering.

Then there's the delicious touch by Target where it positions this technique as a way to discretely buy an item for a child while shopping with that child. Oddly, the statement Target issued speaks of the easier part of that parental deception: "Rather than hoping the kids won't notice when a gift is slipped into the cart, guests can scan the QR codes to buy top toys and have them shipped anywhere for free."

As a parent, I can promise you that slipping the item into the cart unnoticed is relatively easy. It's the checkout—when everything is placed on the conveyor belt one by one—where the Grinch steals the surprise. This QR approach does have the potential to address that issue nicely. "It's better than 'Hey, Junior, look the other way,'" Target's Baeb said.

The only problem is that Junior is quite likely more mobile-savvy than his parent. So instead of being seen scanning the barcode in front of the desired gift, that parent is still going to have to deploy a distraction. As a New Jersey parent, the most effective and common line is usually, "Doesn't that woman look just like the murderer who escaped from the jail last night?"

Now, though, many children are likely to just sigh and say, "Daddy, do you need my help in scanning that QR code?" Kids today.