Hidden Potential of QR Codes

Marketers plant videos, graphics and discounts, if only Americans would look.

by Lisa Martin

Jay Sang Ryu, assistant professor of fashion merchandising.
- photo by: Carolyn Cruz

A mainstay of digital retail marketing throughout Asia, the quick reference, or QR, code — that square, two-dimensional scan box found on everything from food packages to clothing hangtags — has struggled to realize its full potential in the U.S.

QR codes can link consumers to vast amounts of product information and even coupons at the push of a button.

“They might contain graphics and videos, making a very efficient way for a brand to get its story out there,” said Jay Sang Ryu, assistant professor of fashion merchandising. For example, fashion designers might link video clips of celebrities posing in their clothes, or a cosmetics company could embed a video of a makeover that features a new product.

“A big part of the QR code is making the experience as interactive as possible, which is something that appeals to millennials,” Ryu said. “But the retailing industry needs to put forth a concerted effort to educate and explain how to use the codes so consumers will get on board.”

Ambivalence or ignorance about the codes result in missed opportunities for shops, brands and consumers. In a recent research study, Ryu looked at whether towns and cities can incorporate QR codes as part of a larger marketing strategy to lure shoppers to local brick-and-mortar stores.

“My new research is about branding a city through the image-oriented industry such as fashion, arts and popular culture,” said Ryu, who cites as examples Paris’ renown for fashion and Los Angeles’ ties to entertainment. “I want to know how [these associations] help consumers form positive or negative attitudes toward a city and how those affect their intentions to purchase products associated with the city.”

The codes might become a secret weapon in connecting consumers to an interactive, informative experience, said Ryu.

Developed in Japan in the mid-1990s as smartphones became ubiquitous there, QR codes didn’t get much attention in the U.S. until the last few years.

The buzz surrounding QR codes, which require a smartphone to unlock content, gained traction during the 2011 holiday season, when retailers such as Macy’s used the codes to offer in-store promotions and giveaways.

Ryu cited research that shows the number of U.S. advertisements featuring QR codes increased more than 600 percent in the second quarter of 2011 over the same period of 2010. Today, about 30 percent of U.S. mobile users have scanned a QR code, mainly in search of product information or discounts. Moreover, Ryu said, the rise of mobile payment via QR codes “is especially notable.”

Shopping patterns and trend tracking have long interested Ryu, whose mother founded her own fashion label. The professor’s latest study targets Decatur, Texas, whose population is roughly 6,400. Leaders of the small town about 45 miles north of Fort Worth want to entice more shoppers to visit homegrown retailers.

“From surveys I’ve done with young consumers, I’ve found out they are willing to travel about 30 miles for bargain shopping and indigenous or authentic products,” said Ryu, who continues to collect research data for the project. “But the main drawback for consumers of all ages concerning shopping in small towns is the perception that there’s not a variety of products.”

As part of his research, Ryu developed a promotional package for Decatur that includes a postcard embedded with a QR code.

“Retail technology is the future,” he said. “Anything that helps brands connect with their customers can improve the chances of success.”

Jay Sang Ryu specializes in place branding/marketing, retail technology, digital marketing and other innovative retail formats.

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