A QR Thing: Stuck In Macy's Backstage Door

“Don’t break the Martha Stewart dishes,” my wife yell-whispers as I reach across a display in Macy’s, phone outstretched, waiting for the QR app to recognize the oh-so-distant code.

“You’re about to impale yourself on a wooden spoon,” she warns.

“They have the damned code printed so small and placed so far away, my phone needs a telephoto lens to grab it,” I complain.

“You’re attracting attention.”

“I think I pulled something,” I mention, figuring that tapping a note of sympathy might mollify her during another one of these embarrassing QR hunts. She is starting to cast apologetic looks at the salespeople who are gravitating toward us. I am just hoping that the KitchenAid mixer that is now under my belt buckle isn’t plugged in.

Macy’s was asking for it, however. The retailer keeps teasing us with some of the most ambitious mobile marketing pushes around. The TV spots encourage shoppers to take snaps of the nicely fashioned in-store codes embedded in the Macy’s star logo.



To their credit (well, partial credit and grading on a steep curve), Macy’s has gotten some of this experience right. There is a thoughtful style to it all. The ordinarily fugly QR codes are coiffed a bit and used in the stand-ups at select designer collections around the store.  The “star” motif is extended to the content, which features videos of the Macy’s celeb partners like Stewart and Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Kors, Jessica Simpson and the like. I was also pleased to see that someone in this program was raising a hand for the practical IT aspects of it all and putting WiFi into some of the stores in an effort to actually deliver the broadband content the program promises.

Conceptually, the Macy’s Backstage Pass effort feels as if it should work. You can imagine it looking good on paper. The content draw is the best of all attractions – celebrity. After all, content is where most poor mobile marketing campaigns using QR codes falter. You make your consumer go through the bother (yes, QR apologists, it is a bother) of snapping and sending a code only to deliver a bland return. In this case, Macy’s is leading with its stars, and that should make for an interesting in-store experience. After all, plop a QR code on one of the stand-ups in a designer collection and you can bring the celebrity to life. It’s as if the star is right there doing a small demo for you.

What I like about the Macy’s Backstage Pass idea is that it shows a retailer starting to think about using mobile to augment an in-store experience. Somewhere in this plan is a sensitivity to the shopping experience, using mobile as a merchandising tool. Anyone who has been to the flagship Macy’s in Manhattan has seen how deft the company can be in using in-store demos effectively.

And when the Backstage Pass mobile content matches the promise, the end-user experience approximates a virtual demo that at least nominally enhances the shopping experience. The two standouts in the Backstage Pass video collection are Martha Stewart and Tommy Hilfiger, both of whom deliver actual advice. Hilfiger shows off the hot style of the season for both men and women, while Martha has several videos where she catalogs must-have items for the kitchen.

The problem is that even the constructive videos are too short to feel worth the effort. I am not sure that a TV spot is the length a programmer wants to aim for here. If the content is of value, it’s worth more than 30 seconds and should do everything it can not  to feel like an ad. 

But many if not most of the videos are meaningless celeb montages that leave the user feeling a bit punked. A half minute of Greg Norman swinging a golf club? Some montages of a model photo shoot? For one QR code trigger at the front door of a Macy’s housewares section, the video proved redundant. “It just said what was on the sign here, which I was able to read in a tenth of the time it took you to get the video,” my wife notes.

So overall, the “Backstage” aspect of these videos is a misnomer. Most of them just feel like short commercials, less helpful than merely promotional, and certainly not “backstage” in any meaningful respect. And as my wife is fond of saying during these QR expeditions, “I am already in your damned store -- I don’t need an ad about you any more. I am here.”

Which is where the Backstage Pass program leads us -- to the point that these augmented shopping programs are not just about the content; they are about the experience, or content + context. Watching Michael Kors outline what prints he likes this season and what they go with is valuable. Hearing a quasi-celeb gush about how great it is to work with Macy’s on his Bar III collection, not so much. Like the spotty in-store WiFi coverage (I resorted to AT&T’s 3G) the content is not always making sense in the context.

Designers of what I call augmented shopping programs have to start thinking in terms of experience: both quality and seamlessness. The opportunities for augmentation have to be clear and fairly robust. I found myself actively hunting these codes, which often were small and scattered.

“Can I help you?” the ever-present salespeople kept asking, since I was so obviously scanning the horizon for signs of another QR star. 

“Any codes in this section,” I ask?

“I’m sorry?”

“No we’re sorry,” my wife interjects. “He is a little confused. Come on, honey.”

I never thought I would hear myself saying this, but I think Macy’s actually needs more QR codes. It reminds me of advice that Microsoft Tag marketers often tell their print magazine partners: the 2D codes get better response when they are plentiful and visible and give the consumer an expectation of added value persistently. Best Buy and Home Depot get this, I think, in their proliferation of codes across so many items. The cool next step for Macy’s might be having augmented experiences in most areas of the store, so that the mobilized consumer could expect an ever-present extra layer of helpful information at every turn.

But the Macy’s program also points to the next stage of these in-store mobile augmentations: consistency. If a consumer hits upon one of the many disposable in-store videos among the two dozen here, she can’t be expected to keep with it to get one of the more helpful ones. And if the retailer is going to go to the trouble of installing WiFi in the store, perhaps someone should check the effectiveness? Testing many of the Macy’s videos in two stores, we barely got through one without a long load time and frequent pauses. And if you are going to craft a program that relies on a clever styling of QR codes within your corporate logo, how about making the damned codes big enough to snap from afar, or positioning the creative within reach?

“Watch the ladle,” my wife warns as I stretch across the Martha collection to get the code into focus. “No! You are not getting up on the display!”

“Almost got it!”

“I think they're calling security. I am not bailing you out. ”

“Not again? It’s OK, I think they know me by now.”

2 comments about "A QR Thing: Stuck In Macy's Backstage Door".
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  1. Brian Klais from Pure Oxygen Labs, November 1, 2011 at 12:51 p.m.

    Hi Steve, great story.

    I agree marketers are struggling to get their heads around not just the content and connection, but the spatial execution of QR codes.

    QR Density is completely determined by the size of the input URL and EC settings. To be scannable from the farthest distance given a fixed display area (as in your story), marketers need to generate low-density 21x21 QR codes, which require smaller URLs and low EC settings.

    This is new territory for most, so I recently put together a guide to help QR marketers "predict" their QR density output based their URL and EC input, over here:

    I've also written about the interdependent relationships between QR density, display area, and functional distance over here:

    I hope that's helpful to readers...


  2. Tara Zanecki from AV Concepts, November 1, 2011 at 3:47 p.m.

    As always, Steve, great commentary. From the perspective of a consumer, as well as someone who works in mobile marketing, I have three main concerns about QR and in-store mobile marketing campaigns: 1) confusion as to whether or not my phone will actually be able to scan and read the code; 2) the need for a strong signal in the store to stream, buffer, download a piece of mobile web video content (I can't even reach my shopping companion by phone in-store, so how on earth will I pull up a mobile web page?); and 3) as Steve points out, the relevance of the video is often so meaningless it sours the experience. I want to know all the colors in which this sweater is available; are there matching pants to this golf shirt? and which combo does Greg Norman suggest for Fall weather conditions?

    In the mobile marketing business, success comes by either offering an incentive (coupons please!), or useful/exclusive content. Reward me for being a good shopper and participating in your campaign, and I'll tell all my friends to shop there too. :)

    To the point in Steve's post from August 16, 2011 (, using MMS would solve the first two QR shortcomings. As we do at, ask a consumer to text a keyword to a short code and receive the video via MMS - it removes the need to climb over fixtures to get a clear snap of a small QR image, download and stream a video in the store. Easier, more reliable experience. Now, about that content...

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