Are QR Codes Really What Consumers Want? – Retails love affair with the 2D barcode

In Customer Engagement, Customer Experience, Featured on App, Marketing and Sales, Social media, Technology, The Mobile Customer by Vaughn Highfield

Despite having been around since 1994, the QR code has taken off in retail in an unprecedented way.

You can't go anywhere without having a QR code squished into a poster, a bus stop advert, perplexingly on adverts on the subway and underground (where there's no phone signal), magazine pages and now even clothing labels and stands themselves.

But why has the industry only now – nearly 20 years later – finally caught onto the QR code?

And honestly, is it even relevant any more?

Invented by the Japanese car manufacturer Toyota's subsidiary Denso Wave, the Quick Response code was initially designed to track a vehicle's manufacture – giving an instant response for where along its production route it was.

Fast forward 20 years and it's now being used to push a consumer onto an online store of to show them a promotional video about a product they're looking at or thinking of buying.

The allure is there, that's for sure – but who's really using them?

Having previously worked for a design studio, and also written for video game and technology publications, the feedback I've always had surrounding the implementation of QR codes has always been the same: don't use them.

Designers think they're dated, unwieldy, and generally bad practice to include technology that nobody's really asking for. And tech-heads feel that there are far better, simpler and more streamlined alternatives available – and that there have been for years.

Even a quick twitter poll reveals that nobody really uses QR codes – due to lacking the desire to find out what's beyond that square black and white barcode.

This hasn't stopped retailers though as, according to marketing firm Nellymoser, QR codes in magazine ads rose by five per cent in 2011 – from 3.6 to 8.4 – with no sign of stopping.

Yet, retailers still tote it around as if it's something that everyone should become excited about.

Attending this year's Retail Week Live event at the Hilton, I saw Marks & Spencer's Head of Store Design Teresa Clark, and Head of New Channels Benjy Meyer, speak about their technology rich flagship concept eco store at Cheshire Oaks.

Marks & Spencer Eco Store

It's most definitely a sight to behold, melding new layout and retail ideas that merge together online and in-store experiences in some sort of omni-channel wet dream that only the likes of Burberry could compete with. Yet, it was all distinctly 2010 in nature, featuring touchscreens, iPads and more QR codes than the eye could see. They're really betting on QR codes – so much so that they're willing to invest time in teaching the public how to utilise them.

When asked how successful QR code uptake has been, Meyer responded by saying: "I would say QR codes have been slow in the market to take up [sic].

"We recently did an initiative in Westfield on Mothers Day with a number of customers who had never scanned a QR code before. We had a giant flower display, like a giant  QR code made from flowers and it was really great to coach customers through that experience.

"And that's our role as a retailer. We created that change, we're betting on it, and we've got to take our customers on the journey. We can't expect them to do it all on their own."

Marks & Spencer weren't the only ones toting around those square barcodes either. During a presentation by GDR Creative Intelligence's CEO Kate Ancketill that focused around the future of retail, she used examples of ‘forward thinking' from various companies that were rolling out this decrepit technology in new and unique shopping experiences.

The US jeans retailer Hointer has taken the QR code – along with a purpose built app – and effectively built their entire retail model around it. From the videos they show that it – unsurprisingly – all works rather well. But once again, the technology behind it is cripplingly old – placing you in the whims of your phone's performance, signal strength and general connectivity.

Obviously, this is a little bit different as the entire store idea and customer experience revolves around this. Customers go to Hointer because it uses QR codes and apps to let them shop – not because they want to get jeans and that's how they have to do it.

Emmas Enkel QR code wall

Another example comes courtesy of German grocer chain Emmas Enkel who also uses QR codes to let prospective shoppers place orders when its stores are closed. Scanning a code from a list of items displayed at the storefront means that their order will be ready in the morning for collection. Which seems a little silly when they could just order online instead.

Adidas' German arm has also gone one step further with letting shoppers interact and purchase items online via an interactive store window. By scanning the dreaded QR code, or by just entering in a four-digit pin, a customer can download all the items looked at and place into a basket on the Adidas store for a simple purchase.

This may all be very novel, but it hinges far too much on how interested the consumer is in using QR technology – and seeing as it's been commercially available to them for years and nobody has ever shouted from the rafters about how incredible it is, it seems that they largely don't care.

A survey from Archrival showed that of the key demographic group who use smartphones and would be interested in such products promoting with QR codes, 75% answered "not likely" to scan a QR code when presented with one.

In the US just 9 per cent of adults said they had scanned a QR code. Of those, a survey from mobile payments company Mobio showed that of that 9 per cent, 60 per cent did so just once before abandoning the tech.

This is largely down to a fatigue in seeing the same old thing, over and over again. Dumping a QR code somewhere isn't an incentive to scan it. Telling someone why they should scan it also isn't an incentive. Consumers want to be drawn in and given a reason to scan a code, otherwise it's just a box on a piece of paper or screen that isn't that easy to capture.

Things would most definitely be easier if most devices had QR code readers built into them. The fact is, they don't. Why not? Clearly manufacturers also don't see any point in integrating compatibility for nearly 20 year old technology. It'd be like letting you fax items from your phone – nobody wants to use Fax anymore.

There are alternatives though.

yihaodian augmented app

Alternatives that not only engage your customer, but give them an entirely new experience altogether. Augmented Reality.

Most devices have some form of Augmented Reality tech already embedded within, just waiting to be captured – although if stores wish to develop their own apps that can be pushed onto devices as they enter a store, then that would work just as easily.

Here you could guide customers through a truly unique and magical shopping experience, doing away with the barrier of scanning and waiting for a web page to load as everything is subtly overlaid onto the world around them. No longer are they sat in a deck chair in Marks & Spencers, now they're out in the garden, or looking out onto the beach while they browse the items around them.

It's not surprising that China and Japan are pushing these technologies already, living up to the stereotype of being early adopters of future technologies.

China's Yihaodian online retailer now has 1,000 stores across the country, but not a single one is physical. Every store is virtual and relies upon augmented reality for customers to peruse the aisles and buy online for it to be delivered straight to your door.

While this may not be the idea solution for the West, it's clear that implementing it into stores would allow for retailers to carry their entire range by offering ‘pull out' digital shelves for customers to order in stock. This would also give back data to the retailer about what products customers actually want to have displayed in the store.

It becomes even more of a reality when you imagine such a technology becoming integrated with Google Glasses – creating a seamless experience for all, doing away with the need to scan anything.

While my voice is only small in the crowded space of the internet, I implore retailers everywhere to do away with the QR code and think forward for once instead of backwards. Adopt AR tech now, rather than later, and then really wow your customers.