Time To Invest In Scanner Vendors: 74 Percent Of Retailers Say They Want To Scan Mobile Barcodes, Only 2 Percent Can Today

In IHL's latest report on retail mobile hardware issues, a survey of 66 major retailers in September found that 59 percent want to be able to scan mobile barcodes within a year and another 15 percent want to do so within two years. That's 74 percent of retailers who want to scan mobile barcodes. The problem? Barely two percent of them have scanners today that can do the job.

"There's going to be a massive replacement of optical scanners," said IHL President Greg Buzek.

The mobile barcode scanning problem is actually even worse than those numbers suggest, because even chains that have the ability to read today's barcodes—using 1D image scanners—might not be able to deal with more sophisticated mobile barcodes a year down the road. The percentage of retailers that have 2D scanners is even less.

All Wal-Mart stores, for example, have the ability to read mobile barcodes. But only about half of them are 2D capable, according to one Wal-Mart IT exec.

One issue stems from the somewhat non-intuitive suggestion that the more sophisticated 2D scanners would likely be more effective at reading barcodes off older phones that have weaker resolutions. In most instances, though, a 1D optical scanner should do fine with almost all phones.

The more problematic issue arises when mobile phones start using 2D barcodes, which many phones have already started to use. "Today, the preponderance—by far—of barcodes that are reproduced on cellphones are 2D," said Rusty Hastings, a product manager with scanner vendor Datalogic.

A Target IT exec who is working on the mobile barcode issue said that initial tests on reading mobile barcodes has exposed lots of minor logistical issues. For example, the fluorescent lights used in some Targets (and many other chains) have a tendency to obscure the phone's barcodes. That's why holding the phone above the scanner—so that the phone and the hand holding the phone block out much of that fluorescent light—can be helpful.

The IHL report also brought up a mobile checkout speed issue. "How fast can you go through coupons on a mobile screen?" Buzek asked.

The point is a very good one. Most consumers do not bring a single coupon to checkout. If they're using coupons, they'll often use several at once.

An experienced cashier can whip through nine paper coupons in a few seconds. But scanned mobile coupons—as opposed to ones that are selected at home and automatically saved to the phone or onto a CRM file that the POS screen can access—today have to be handled one at a time, with a couple of screen changes to move from one coupon to the next. That has the very strong potential for dramatically slowing down the line.