R U Ready 4 QR Codes?

CONSIDERING MOBILE MARKETING? Then you should probably start thinking about quick response (QR) codes. These two-dimensional barcodes can provide a vital link between print media and mobile commerce, but most merchants in the U.S. have yet to embrace QR codes.

WHAT ARE THEY? Like conventional barcodes, QR codes store information — namely mobile Website URLs — that can be read by devices with cameras, like cell phones. A user with a Web-enabled camera phone equipped with the QR reader software can scan the image of the QR code; decoding software reads the information and prompts the phone’s browser to go to a programmed URL.

WHAT’S THE BENEFIT TO YOU? Let’s say you have a QR code printed on an advertisement or catalog. A customer could scan it with his cell phone to be directed to your mobile site — and hopefully start buying immediately.

IS ANYBODY USING THEM? Considering mobile commerce is in its infancy here, few merchants have taken the plunge into QR. But that may be starting to change.

Upscale apparel brand Ralph Lauren, for instance, burst onto the mobile commerce scene in August using the technology. The merchant put QR codes on print advertisements, store windows and mailers so that with one wave of a Web-enabled camera phone — with QR reader software — the user is whisked away to a landing page at m.ralphlauren.com.

The mobile site initially launched with a showcase of its limited edition 2008 U.S. Open Collection and other Ralph Lauren classics such as polo shirts, oxfords and chinos. Mobile users could also check out a Ralph Lauren style guide, watch tennis videos, and read articles about the U.S. Open.

“We see mobile as a key channel for marketing, advertising and commerce for all of our brands and retail concepts,” says Miki Berardelli, Ralph Lauren’s vice president, global customer strategy and retail marketing. “QR codes are part of the strategy and they serve as a conduit, providing an easy way for people to access the mobile Web.”

Users can download the QR reader application for free from Ralph Lauren; the technology is also available from numerous other sources online.

David Harper, founder/CEO of Website development firm Engagelogic and mobile content management and social networking software company Winksite, hopes the Ralph Lauren launch will encourage others to incorporate QR codes in their mobile commerce campaigns. But the early adaptors like Ralph Lauren may need to do more to educate people about the technology.

For instance, Harper says, Ralph Lauren will have included a short message service (SMS) element, such as having the user send a short code message to receive the best-available QR reader for his or her phone. Or it could even use that message to send the consumer direct to m.ralphlauren.com.

“But I have to compliment Ralph Lauren for going out there and implementing the technology, and I wish other brands would think about it,” Harper says.

Why aren’t more using QR codes? Creating a basic QR code is easy enough: Multichannel Merchant generated the code that appears on this issue’s cover in a matter on minutes on Winksite.com. (Test it with your cell phone camera.)

Dave Sikora, CEO of m-commerce provider Digby, blames a lack of consumer awareness of the technology, and the inability of phones to accurately read the codes.

Indeed, Harper notes that his initial attempts to read Ralph Lauren QR code failed. Berardelli admits that there can be issues with downloading the software — the older the phone, the more likely a download will fail.

At this point, Sikora says, “There’s a lot less error involved in a user typing in a URL to get to a mobile site than holding the camera at the right angle, having it read the QR code properly, and going to the mobile site.”

But Harper contends that adding a QR code reader application to a phone is no harder than downloading software to your personal computer. You can do a search for “QR code reader” on your mobile browser and find a site you want to download it from. Once installed, the reader application will show up in the applications folder, and its icon will appear on the screen.

And the QR reader does not have to point perfectly perpendicular for the QR code to be correctly translated by the mobile device, he adds. Even a wave over the code can bring the user to the correct mobile site.

Still, there’s no industry data yet on how well QR codes work, Sikora notes. “But if using Ralph Lauren’s case helps the user experience, maybe the demand will grow.”

Big in Japan

QR codes can be seen everywhere in Japan — no surprise, since Japanese firm Denso-Wave created the technology in 1994. Cell phone users in Japan can click a QR code printed on a poster at a movie theater and view its trailer.

It helps that QR code readers come as a standard feature on cell phones in Japan and Australia. And Harper says they’re starting to become standard in certain parts of China, such as Beijing. (The software remains open-source in the U.S., though Nokia did add it to its N95 model.)

Computar/Ganz, a business-to-business marketer of cameras and security systems, in March started using the codes on each of its Website product pages. The company’s parent is CBC America, which is owned by a Japanese company. Its catalogs in Japan already contain the QR codes.

But Computar/Ganz, which worked with Engagelogic on the QR code initiative, is taking baby steps with the technology in the U.S., says Nina Matthews, marketing coordinator for CBC America.

“When a customer scans the barcode with their phone, it launches a mobile-ready product detail and ordering page,” she says. “This enables the customer to grab the page for follow-up while on the go or for sharing with others.”

The goal for CBC America is to provide an innovative service for Computar/Ganz’s customers, and then move forward based on customer feedback, Matthews says.

The company believes the codes provide a simple method to offer extended product information while facilitating a sales connection. Matthews would not say if the company plans to use QR codes in its annual catalog next year. “We believe that adoption of physical hyperlinking in the U.S. will mirror the success experienced overseas,” Matthews says. “This will require mainstream exposure and education.”

Once consumers embrace the technology, Harper envisions some merchants using QR codes on the covers of their catalogs. Eventually, they may generate individual codes to be used for each product offering.

Technology notwithstanding, Digby’s Sikora wonders how some merchants would handle the creative elements of incorporating a QR code into their print advertising and catalogs. He is a bit surprised that a high-end brand such as Ralph Lauren is including QR codes on its expensive creative pieces.

“I can’t see Ralph Lauren putting a hideous barcode on every beautiful ad they produce,” Sikora says. The brand’s creative is typically very artful and interesting, “and then you’ve got this big black-and-white thing in the corner, ruining it.”

Stores should home in on GPS

GOT A BLACKBERRY? Then you have GPS in the palm of your hand. And within five years, Digby CEO Dave Sikora thinks GPS will be standard on all mobile devices sold in the U.S.

So if you’ve got bricks-and-mortar as one of your channels, Sikora thinks you should definitely take advantage of the technology.

That was one of the perks his client, Godiva Chocolatier, touted when it went mobile in May. The idea was simple: If you didn’t want to buy from Godiva’s BlackBerry store, you could go to the store locator and find the closest retailer or boutique.

The GPS on cell phones does have its limitations: You have to be outside to connect to the satellite. And if you’re in a large city, buildings can interfere with the signal.

But even if you don’t have GPS on your phone, there are several applications out there that allow for cell tower triangulation. With the right application, your phone can bounce a signal off multiple cell towers to help you find your destination.

“We haven’t even started to see how bricks-and-mortar retailers can leverage GPS,” Sikora says. “Where is a store? Where can I find product? What’s the closest place in stock? How many ways can you leverage that?” — TP