Why this holiday season is crucial for QR Codes

Retailers are decking their aisles with QR Codes this holiday season. Target is placing the codes near popular items to enable users to buy them online and ship them anywhere in the U.S. free, Tourneau is rolling out an interactive effort to market its lineup of luxury watches, Kohl’s is offering free Wi-Fi to encourage customers to scan codes and Walmart Canada is teaming with Mattel to build a QR Code virtual toy store in Toronto.

These efforts come hand-in-hand with the new retail trend of mobile “showrooming” – enabling customers in the store to access product information, compare prices and even make purchases on their smartphones or tablets. As Forbes noted this week, the strategy is aimed directly at the 55 percent of mobile device owners who plan to use their gadgets to shop this holiday season. But if QR Codes don’t get a big lift from these new campaigns, they may never gain the mainstream acceptance that once seemed imminent.

The fertile soil of showrooming

Theoretically, at least, QR Codes are a perfect fit for showrooming. They enable shoppers to access valuable information with just a couple of clicks, and enable retailers to control how that information is presented. But a disconnect remains between advertisers (who rightfully view QR Codes as an affordable way to embrace high-tech marketing) and consumers (who often don’t understand how to use them or even know what they do). While QR Codes have become commonplace on in-store marketing collateral, a comScore study released earlier this year found that less than 20 percent of U.S. smartphone users – in other words, substantially less than 10 percent of U.S. mobile users – had scanned a product barcode in a retail environment.

The blame for that lack of consumer uptake rests largely on the shoulders of marketers who have misunderstood how to leverage the technology effectively. Codes have been placed in underground subway stations where coverage is nonexistent, on billboards so high they can’t be scanned and on city buses that are constantly moving. Many QR Codes aren’t accompanied by step-by-step instructions, leaving would-be first-timers scratching their heads. And they often fail to deliver any real value to the consumer because they just lead to websites that aren’t optimized for mobile devices.

Alternative mobile-marketing tools are beginning to emerge

U.S. consumers are slowly beginning to warm to QR Codes, but alternative technologies are beginning to come to market that will become powerful mobile marketing tools. The most obvious example is NFC, which will enable users to receive content orto  be directed to a mobile site just by clicking their phones against a transmitter rather than having to fire up an app and scan an image. NFC-equipped handsets remain a rarity today but will compound annual growth of 88 percent over the next several years, according to Berg Insight. Augmented reality could enable marketers to make physical ads interactive with web-based apps such as Layar’s Creator that “read” the ad to access portals for digital content. And mobile visual search will allow users to access relevant content just by uploading an image of the item itself rather than using a code as a kind of middleman.

I’m still fairly optimistic about the prospects for QR Codes in the U.S. They’re beginning to catch on in Europe, as comScore recently reported, and U.S. advertisers are finally learning how to maximize the power of the digital marketing tool (as Target’s carrot of free shipping illustrates). When QR Codes are done well, they can be used to engage nearly every consumer with a smartphone – an edge no competing high-tech mobile marketing tool can claim. That advantage will disappear, though, as NFC and other technologies gain market penetration. If QR Codes don’t make big strides this holiday season, they may never see the mass-market adoption many envisioned.