Are QR Codes on Catalogs Cutting It?

The U.S. Postal Service offered a 3% promotional discount to catalogers who use two-dimensional mobile barcodes inside or on their mailings this summer. The USPS hopes the program, which ends Aug. 31, will promote integration of the direct mail and mobile channels.

The idea behind the promotion is an excellent way to help drive emerging technology. Unfortunately, a sampling of catalogs that have come across my desk show the use of QR codes is poorly carried out.

Though they are mainstream in countries like Japan, QR codes are still fairly new to most U.S. consumers. If you just slap a QR code on the back of a catalog and don’t explain what it is, why it’s there, how to read it – and include a backup URL in case the user scans it and comes up with an error – it may not gain any traction.

And if the QR code does not direct to a site that can be rendered on a mobile device, making it hard for the user to navigate with ease, the user is going to close the mobile browser and not come back.

Yet some merchants seemed to slap QR codes on all willy-nilly just to get the 3% discount. And that may hinder QR code growth.

While doing an article on gifts merchant Flahrney’s Pens earlier this month, company president Chris Sullivan said he was taking advantage of the discount with hopes of building its mobile audience and driving those customers to Flahrney’s “Super Sale” clearance section.

A look at Flahrney’s back cover – and a scan of the QR code with an Android-platform phone – show the merchant executed the QR code to near perfection. The copy doesn’t tell the merchant how to scan the barcode, and doesn’t provide a backup URL. But it does lead the user to a mobile-enabled site.

Here’s a sampling of other QR codes seen on summer catalog mailings:

  • Baudville: “Scan the code and send a free office eCard!” is on the gifts merchant’s back cover. When the code is scanned and viewed vertically on an Android, it’s tough to read the form. When you hold it horizontally, you see the form and can easily be turned off by the amount of information Baudville is requesting before you can send an ePraise. Definitely better for an iPad and other tablets than a smartphone.
  • Wishcraft by Chasing Fireflies: The children’s apparel seller just includes a QR code on the back cover. And if you don’t know what a QR code is, you’re going to think it’s a part of the mailing barcode. Worse, the QR code just drives the user to the Chasing Fireflies home page, which is not rendered for smartphones.
  • Miles Kimball Cards: Great execution on the back cover from this gifts merchant. The headline tells you there’s an exclusive sale on cards and that it’s an online-only sale. The URL for is prominently displayed. But the site is not optimized for the Android (or an iPhone, as discovered when I ran the URL through iPhone simulator Miles Kimball also did the QR code on its Autumn 2011 catalog cover, and that, too, leads to a non-mobile site.
  • Herrschner’s: The craft-seller’s back-page directive is “Scan this QR Code to see an additional limited time offer!” All I saw was part of a Herrschner’s logo and a giant “Welcome.” I had to press the minus-zoom key three times to get the whole offer on the Android screen. For kicks, I scrolled down and clicked a “hot buys” button and was brought to a non-mobile site.
  • Blair: “Already mobile? Shop now! Scan your smartphone here for Blair/Women’s.” With a message like that, you’d think the apparel merchant was ready for mobile. It, too, brings the user to a non-mobile Blair site.
  • Harriet Carter: The QR code drives the Harriet Carter customer to a – you guessed it – non-mobile-optimized site. The copy asks the user to tire her tweeting thumbs and sign up for emails. It tells you that if you don’t have a QR code reader, you can, “Go to the app store and search for QR reader.” And it tells you to “snap” the QR code. Just because the reader works with the camera on your mobile device doesn’t mean you take a picture of the barcode.
  • Really Good Stuff: Really good idea: Bring the offline educational products customer to a mobile site loaded with product videos. The only problem is, the site isn’t mobile-friendly, and the videos could not be viewed on my Android. I ran the site through the iPod simulator, and the videos did work there.