Using QR Codes At The 'Last Three Feet' Of Sale

Much like the Battle of Stalingrad, the mobile skirmishes for consumer attention at retail are likely to become tactical and granular. All of the usual in-store merchandising techniques get disrupted, from shelf arrangements to end cap positioning, salesmen pitches to signage.

Who knows what app loyalties shoppers bring into the store? Do they go into Best Buy having been captivated by the brand’s admittedly laudable app and mobile Web site? Or are they leaning on Red Laser already, or ShopSavvy, Amazon, Shopkick?

And what place do  manufacturer/suppliers have in all of this now? Do they have better access to the consumer by cutting mobile merchandising deals with retailers in much the same way they might in a circular or in-store exposure? Should they be working with all of these third-party scan code and product-look-up solutions in order to insert themselves into the mobile research cycle? Or should an HP or a Sony invest in its own mobile content strategy to go straight to the consumer with mission-critical product info?

For big manufacturers, the answer is likely that they have to test some combination of mobile presence to see where they get the most bang for the buck. But for the thousands of smaller suppliers who also rely on brick-and-mortar retailers for the bulk of sales, the strategy has to be more targeted. Specialty Earphone maker Etymotic has been using QR codes on its in-store packaging for a year and a half already, in what Mark Karnes, Managing Director, Consumer Products Division, calls “enhanced point-of-sale presence” that is aimed not only at consumers but at salespeople.

For those of us who have tracked mobile technology for a while, Etymotic’s excellent in-ear devices are well known as superior to many of the better-promoted brands. But much relies on sales staffs who suffer incredible churn and lack the information at hand to help them steer customers to the best product. “We wanted to get away from the cost of training materials for our channel partners and work out how to get dynamic materials to them,” Karnes says. “We wanted to have an ongoing relationship with people who would be in the last three feet of sale.” By being first to market with both a consumer- and sales-facing mobile solution, Etymotic was hoping to stand out from the pack and get early learnings, even though the scale for QR code interaction was quite small.

Using a do-it-yourself mobile app generator from Magmito, Etymotic has created 24 different retailer apps that salespeople can use both to understand products and show customers. Karnes has apps for Best Buy blue shirts and Apple Geniuses, and even one for airport mobile stores and kiosks. They include videos the salesperson can show the customer about how the product works, and they have training materials approved by and customized for the retailer’s staff that also can be updated dynamically at any time to reflect new models and promotions.

Etymotic also has a consumer-facing program that generates QR codes for the packaging with triggers for different apps focused on its major product segments. While other brands and retailers have been scrambling to get mobilized for the most recent holiday season, Etymotic actually had this tactic in place more than 18 months ago and is already in its second iteration of the strategy. “We thought it would really give us an edge,” he says. “Some of the products are pretty small, and against 30 or 40 others it is hard to give the level of intimacy about the product on a 3x5 package.”

Karnes says the company went into a model that relied on QR triggers understanding that initial response rates would be small. At first, salespeople were the main initiators of the program. A quiz and prize promotion for the salespeople incentivized early use. But over time he noticed that consumers were using UPC code scans as an entry way to QR use. “They would scan the UPC for a price comparison and then they would see a QR code there. The adoption of QR scanning has been helped by the bar code pricing scans,” he says. “[Customers] see that more information is available.”

And one of the first things company strategists learned was something most big-box retail shoppers could have told them: The salespeople at tech stores are not very tech-savvy. “We expected when we went in that the tech salespeople would know more about what these [QR codes] are, and we were surprised that there were very few people who did,” says Karnes. In fact, the company had to go in and train some of these staffs how to use a QR code to trigger an app download. 

Karnes says that the situation has improved in just the last year. In the second round of apps and codes, salespeople are starting to use them, and consumers too are driving uptake. The program is being promoted on all advertising, the packaging and the Etymotic Web site.

There are some practical problems in making QR codes an integral part of the consumer experience in store, however, he finds. First, the in-store mobile experience is grossly unreliable and uneven. As I keep finding (and yelling about) in these pages, Karnes confirms that wireless reception at retail is a serious problem and an impediment to these programs. “The technology challenges connectivity and consumers have no attention span or time.”

And even when there is some connectivity, the bandwidth in aisle 13 often is not rich enough to stream the kinds of video and rich-media content that really sells products. Also, Karnes reports that the uneven state of the QR readers themselves is a problem. “Most of the QR scanners in these apps are pretty amateurish,” he says. “The apps are not at the level they need to be so the consumer can do this fluidly.”

It is still early in the game and hard to quantify the effects of such an ambitious, multipronged program, but Karnes feels “we are starting to see this as a very effective way to reach the floor and salespeople.” In part, by coming in first, learning early and working with retailers, Etymotic found a more cost-effective way to enhance aisle presence via mobile. “When we’re up against a Monster or Bose or Skullcandy that have millions to spend with the floor, this keeps us in the game,” Karnes says. He sees this platform as a way for a medium-sized competitor to  even the playing field and get an affordable enhancement to shelf visibility. The mobile model may not be overwhelming the competition, “but it kept me in contact with the sales floor, where we have always been out-marketed.”  

Tags: mobile
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4 comments about "Using QR Codes At The 'Last Three Feet' Of Sale".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , January 3, 2012 at 10:47 a.m.
    If you want salespeople (Apple excluded in this discussion) then businesses need to extend training and PAY them more with health benefits. The revolving door of uninformed $10/hr (or less) cashiers will slow down. Now, Steve, you can get it on with your marketing ploys.
  2. Tara Zanecki from AV Concepts , January 3, 2012 at 4:20 p.m.
    Mark Karnes' comment "the bandwidth in aisle 13 often is not rich enough to stream the kinds of video and rich-media content that really sells products," is exactly why MMS (the rich-media version of SMS), should be strongly considered for retail. Sending and receiving text messages, even in the thinnest of bandwidth zones, is far easier than trying to connect a scanned code to a server somewhere and download a heavy page of content. Mogreet's MMS delivers :30-:40 seconds of video, a dozen images, 3-mins of audio, and unlimited text to all phone types. Etymotic is brilliant in their earphone devices, and would be even more brilliant to allow customers to receive product information via the more reliable text network.
  3. John Caron from Catalina , January 3, 2012 at 5:26 p.m.
    It's not just about bandwidth, but about context. Once the QR code can drive a personalized experience for the shopper that's 100% relevant to them, then they'll have a good reason to scan them beyond getting product information or prices. Contextually-engaged QR codes will have a place in retail. The retailers just have to catch up to the technology.
  4. David Lawson from Knotice , January 4, 2012 at 3:37 p.m.
    Love that they are designing these apps to be specific to the actual retailer, that is the context that is needed here. This is mobile 101- make the context relevant to the person with the device in their hand. Everything from aesthetics to terminology and even pace of business/urgency can be captured with a customized experience and that will connect their information best. Digging more deeply, not only is this a boon for training costs and efficacy for the product manufacturing brand, this solves many problems for traditionally high overhead retail operators. Consider that over the course of the past few years, while economic recovery has been slow, growth has been happening. This means that more people are coming to stores to buy more things. A major retailer's #1 need and priority is to improve the customer experience while inside the expensive store. Consequently, they need to hire more people. Unfortunately, with job growth (even slow growth), the talent pool is diminished and good people either leave for other opportunities or are harder to find but they need to hire anyway. With more people working in the store at the same time, overhead grows higher and the need to improve productivity increases. When looking at useful tools to train these associates, a software solution that runs on devices employees already have (or that the retailer already has- no incremental capital expenditures that use traditional retail math of # of employees X number of stores X cost of widget = total cost) is a marvelously tenable option (perhaps the only one these days). Add in the fact that the retailer invests very little in these solutions from a capital perspective and its even more compelling. These apps (or even mobile web) can be built once relatively inexpensively and applied at scale to a national/global sales team, can have the most up to date information and messages from the brand and the retailer, and when done well, can absolutely impact the ability to have a better or different conversation on the sales floor. From the consumer-facing side of the program, its really important to consider the retailer's role in the value chain this is intended to integrate into. Sometimes this means being very careful with things like inventory, comparison tools, couponing, and the like. If your tool directs consumers to other stores or options that aren't available in that location, your program isn't going to be seen as a value and it might potentially be perceived as competitive. Nice example of a brand understanding one of the "roles" that mobile can play to improve their business. Thanks for sharing.