Quick Response barcodes aim to turn browsers into buyers

In today’s on-demand society, industry manufacturers are tapping into mobile devices with Quick Response matrix barcodes -- those pixel-looking graphic squares on product packages, fixtures and in ads -- to turn a passive browsing customer into a take-action buyer. SNEWS checks out the players in this emerging technology.
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In today’s on-demand society, industry manufacturers are tapping into mobile devices by way of Quick Response matrix barcodes -- those pixel-looking graphic squares -- on product packaging, fixturing and advertising to turn a passive browsing customer into a take-action buyer.

Essentially, Quick Response codes, also known as QR codes are blurring of the lines between mobile phones and the Internet. They are named “quick response” because the creator intended the code to allow its contents to be decoded at high speed.

“That’s what QR codes are really about: finding consumers where they’re at -- not always sitting at a desktop but walking around, mobile and interactive,” said Dustin Clark, web manager for outdoor apparel and gear manufacturer Mountain Hardwear, who has spearheaded the company’s QR program.

Now piquing the interest of outdoor and fitness manufacturers, QR codes are two-dimensional barcodes, readable by mobile phones with cameras, SmartPhones and QR scanners. They can store more data than a standard barcode, including website links, geographical coordinates and text. Microsoft has its own version called Tags, which are customizable and allow users to create Tags in black and white or color.

Some manufacturers are tapping into the technology for fall ’10 and beyond, placing QR codes on product packaging, hangtags and POP fixtures, as well as magazine advertising, direct mail pieces and even billboards. Other industries are also using them on business cards, fliers, posters, T-shirts and window signage.

“In the current marketplace,” Clark told SNEWS®, “QR codes have become a traffic-driving method and serve as strong visual indicators.”

The SmartPhone boost

Common in Japan, where they were first created in the mid-1990s to manage automotive inventory, adoption elsewhere, including the United States, has been slow. That’s changing as the technology is gaining traction with the increasing SmartPhone market, which is a main conduit to connecting consumers to company info via the QR codes.

Nielsen reported that SmartPhone sales accounted for 25 percent of the U.S. mobile phone market in Q2 ‘10, and expects SmartPhones to become the majority by the end of 2011. A report from IDC Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker notes the SmartPhone market is growing twice as fast as the broader mobile phone market.

And, Coda Research Consultancy predicts global SmartPhone sales of 2.5 billion over the 2010-2015 period. It also estimates mobile Internet use via SmartPhones will increase 50-fold by the end of that period.

Users can download QR readers for the iPhone, Windows Mobile, Nokia, BlackBerry, and other app-based phones with a camera built in. Many Android phones are now coming with QR code readers already installed.

Industry proliferation

What does the consumer find on the other end of a QR code? Normally, it varies from landing on a home page to targeted product informational pages or exclusive micro websites, as well as coupons. And, since videos are so predominant in general, many companies are producing videos to keep the dynamic interaction alive for the consumer.

Fitness equipment manufacturer Icon Health & Fitness (www.iconfitness.com) has produced QR codes and videos for more than 100 products launching this fall, predominantly in its mass channels to help customers better understand its products there. The videos range from highlighting a special feature that’s hard to convey with just a still shot and copy to overall communication about the product.

“We want to take advantage of the technology that people have in their pockets,” said Colleen Logan, vice president of marketing for Icon. “Like everyone in the fitness industry, we have some amazing features on our products that are challenging to communicate in a single picture and copy. As our products get more sophisticated in fitness, it helps to have something that makes them easier to understand.”

Luggage and travel accessory company Eagle Creek (www.eaglecreek.com) is using the technology on its Pack-It System products, a series of folders and cube pouches that work in tandem to organize luggage and packs. It’s placing codes on POP fixtures in spring ’11 and product packaging in fall ’11 that lead viewers to a two-minute video demonstrating how the system works and tips to use.

“We’re trying to work with new technologies to connect with people,” said Veronica Cox, brand director for Eagle Creek. “We work so hard to develop such a great story and it’s exciting for us that there’s new ways that we can share those stories with people. We’re able to use these inanimate-seeming devices to bring the brand story to life.

“We have always known a video or demonstration will get people to understand the system of products,” Cox said.

Both Logan and Cox added that the use of QR codes is a “greener” alternative as it limits the number of materials to print, DVDs to produce and reduces the size of some signage.

With exclusive partnerships with Dick’s Sporting Goods, REI and Warren Miller, QR codes offers Mountain Hardwear (www.mountainhardwear.com) the advantage to introduce its brand to audiences less familiar with it. With Dick’s, it’s created a co-branded micro website. Mountain Hardwear fixtures in more than 400 Dick’s stores will have a QR code that takes consumers to the micro site where they can learn more about the apparel on display, as well as the company.

Initially, launching primarily in POPs and print advertising this fall, Mountain Hardwear’s goal is to roll out QR codes on product hangtags on backpacks in spring ’11.

In essence, these “virtual hangtags” also become a silent -- or virtual -- salesperson educating the customer when on-floor staff is unavailable or perhaps not as educated about a particular product.

“You’d be able to interact with the product in a retail store and get in-depth knowledge and video on features and materials, and a lot more explanation and a lot more depth of content than you would get from a standard hangtag,” Mountain Hardwear’s Clark said.

Potential pitfalls?

Most of the companies SNEWS interviewed admitted they were in the initial stages of working with QR codes, on the crux of launching them this fall and unsure, but hopeful, of how they’ll play out in the marketplace. Some weren’t sure what they were yet. A critical component to success rests in a solid back-end platform.

“We’re moving through these new technologies carefully,” Cox said. “We want to make sure that, one, we give people a relevant story, two, that our back end is secure, and three, and we don’t go technology crazy. Everything has to have a purpose.”

As a small manufacturer of ventilator masks for use in cold-weather sports, Talus Outdoor Technologies (www.talusoutdoor.com) is looking for a vendor that can help it on multiple levels: from creating a stable QR code platform to maintenance. While John Sullivan, the company’s COO, said he sees QR codes as a great selling tool, he’s not willing to take any chances printing the codes on 15,000 product packages, for now.

“None of the providers gave us a lot of confidence in their ability to provide a stable platform or longevity to their code. We’re very small, and the more a company can help us, the more likely we’ll work with them,” Sullivan told SNEWS.

So far, Mountain Hardwear hasn’t encountered any problems, but Clark sees the potential risks based on a consumer’s choice of apps.

“Consumers may download the worst app to read QR codes that some hack company made and do a poor job of reading them. That’s where problems come in: poor quality software and low-resolution cameras,” Clark said, noting the company recommends apps to use. “You can design for as many users as you can, but at the end of the day, you can’t catch them all.”

Most industry companies don’t have enough time under their belt to track their progress, but the technology will allow them to track and analyze the results of the traffic to their linked QR codes. As with any venture, the bottom line goal of using QR codes is to build brand recognition and drive sales.

“The world is getting a lot more competitive, and as we strive to be that specialty higher-end brand in the marketplace and maintain that position, new tools like these can share that story,” Cox of Eagle Creek said. “From our specialty level, if you carry product that are higher end with refined features, then consumers can understand why they’re paying more, more easily.”

--Wendy Geister

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