Commentary

Beyond QR: Can We Standardize the Mobile UPC Scanning Experience?

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QR Codes are like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get when you go through the bother of pulling out your cell phone, snapping a 2D code of any kind. This is especially true when it comes to the various apps that scan "1D" UPC codes on packages.  Many apps from online retailers and other search engines will push you to their own deals involving the product or local availability and pricing. At no point does the original manufacturer come into play, however. 

What if the scan results on a UPC code could deliver a uniform data set of product information from a brand over which that manufacturer had some control? That appears to be the goal behind a new partnership announced by code services provider ScanBuy and the GS1 B2C Alliance, that is part of an industry alliance for establishing global standards and brokering these kinds of technology and manufacturer relationships.  

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According to a recent report from the UK branch of GS1, 91% of the mobile barcode scans they tested returned incorrect or no product info.   

In a  six-month non-exclusive agreement between Scanbuy and GS21, brand marketers can input content into a uniform database for their products and UPC codes so that when users of Scanbuy's popular ScanLife code reader app snap a UPC, they will get a standard set of product information. Scanbuy tells me that the pilot project starts with basics: nutritional information, including notice of any allergens, as well as brand-related links to a Web site or Facebook page. Obviously there is potential here for spot couponing and discounts, cross-selling, etc. But I think the main value for consumers here would be uniformity. One of my own pet peeves when it comes to mobile 2D codes is the uncertainly around the experience. In a perfect mobilized world, consumers would be able to scan the 1D UPC on a package with the same set of expectations they have with consulting the nutrition information grid on a package. In one sense, this kind of normalized model works when the result is predictable -- although much of its marketing promise lies with how the brand augments the information without cluttering the experience. 

The results are limited to whatever brands decide to play and the users of the ScanLife app. Scanbuy claims millions of active users, but it is only one among many, many apps that do something with the UPC codes, including the Goggles function in Google. How one proliferates knowledge of the app and harvests enough marketers to join in and make the coverage wide enough to be useful are open questions. Scanbuy says that UPCs are among the most popular kinds of codes that get scanned by its multi-purpose code reader app. In its most recent report it noted that 400,000 UPCs are scanned via ScanLife each month.  Ultimately, however, we would need some agreed-upon standard of data sets associated with UPCs that this and other apps could access in order to facilitate real consumer convenience and uniformity of expectations.  

No doubt there are other mobile code companies who would prefer to be the data-keeper, too. Still, this is an early attempt in the right direction to provide consumers with information that comes directly from the brands rather than a hodgepodge collection of third parties.

From a consumer's perspective, the act of scanning a UPC code should be like a box of chocolate covered malt balls: you always know what you are biting into. Well, expect for that gnarly little outlier chewy one that always seems to creep into the box.

1 comment about "Beyond QR: Can We Standardize the Mobile UPC Scanning Experience?".
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  1. Antony McGregor Dey from Link.Me, September 13, 2011 at 4:20 a.m.

    Nice coverage of this Steve and a fantastic initiative by Scanbuy and the GS1 B2C Alliance. There are many 1D barcode scanning apps out there that resolve the barcode to an experience fo the app developers choice. I know that many of our clients at http://link.me including, HarperCollins and McGraw-Hill would be happy to pay to have these apps resolve a 1D Barcode scan to a destination of their choice. We will be following this with interest.

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