DURING New York Fashion Week earlier this month, Quick Response (QR) codes — square, checkered symbols that can be scanned with one’s smartphone — were as omnipresent as chunky black booties.
They were on cookies doled out by Tiffany that, when scanned, revealed an invitation to a concert with Leighton Meester. They were on a pink Barbie-themed bus, and on doll displays in stores that could be scanned for a chance to win designer clothes. And they were on postcards for a “fashion hunt” with the Madison Avenue Business Improvement District and the blog Madison Avenue Spy.
Weeks earlier, a model walked a runway in Barcelona with a QR code emblazoned on the bodice of her Frans Baviera gown; meanwhile, a company called Skanz began selling silicone bracelets embellished with QR codes that enable anyone with a smartphone to scan your wrist and instantly access a Web page with your contact information, social media links, even favorite photos and videos.
In other words: you’ve become a human hyperlink.
When Skanz doled out bracelets to attendees of Consumer Electronics Week this summer, “nobody exchanged business cards,” said Tammy Lewis, chief marketing officer of the Tarrytown, N.Y., based QR Media Group, which owns Skanz. “Instead they were scanning each other to exchange their personal information.”
She noted that this is also handy when meeting prospective dates in bars. After all, why scrawl your number on a napkin or tap it into a stranger’s phone when all you have to do is lean in and whisper, “Scan me.”
For the uninitiated: QR codes are a type of barcode that can store more information than the vertical zebra-stripe variety familiar from supermarkets. When scanned, a QR code can quickly pull up a Web page, text or geographic coordinates. As the smartphone market expanded, so did the codes.
Now retailers, publishers, arts institutions, musicians, government organizations and charities are increasingly using QR codes in their advertising to direct consumers to online contests, games, cocktail recipes (for Pisco Portón liquor, to name one), book excerpts (like Glen Duncan’s “Last Werewolf”), performances (including those at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), even how-to videos. At Macy’s, a QR code that points consumers to a smoky-eye makeup lesson by Bobbi Brown has been an unexpected hit.
“The business went through the roof,” Martine Reardon, executive vice president of marketing for Macy’s, said of Ms. Brown’s high-tech marketing experiment. “Her success at Macy’s has a lot to do with that QR video.”
Mike Wehrs, the president and chief executive of Scanbuy, a leading player in the QR industry that has worked with retailers, including Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Gap, Home Depot and Staples, said that between the third and fourth quarters of 2010, scan rates doubled and have continued to accelerate since. “In July we crossed over to doing more than one scan every second,” he said. “It’s just becoming more and more pervasive everywhere you look.”
At the Museum of Modern Art, the “Talk to Me” exhibition includes examples of QR design — like a huge code covering the facade of a Tokyo building— and marks the first time the museum has put the codes on labels for every object in an exhibition. Starbucks recently used QR codes in a digital scavenger hunt to promote Lady Gaga’s latest album, while HBO used the codes in a commercial for its hit series “True Blood.” The design company SET created a red code in the shape of a cross that, in the aftermath of the earthquake in Japan, directed people to a donation page for the American Red Cross. The United States Army is beginning to put QR codes in the windows of recruiting centers so applicants can procure information even if a center is closed. And the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency have announced that every 2013 vehicle in dealer showrooms will be required to have QR-coded fuel economy labels.
Many people, however, ignore the codes. So far, QR codes are mainly scanned by men (60.5 percent of QR code scanners) with a household income of $100,000 or more, according to comScore, which first began measuring QR scanning in May. Scanning requires a smartphone — and often patience. If your phone does not have a built-in QR code reader, you can download a free one, like RedLaser, ScanLife, Barcode Scanner, Shop Savvy or i-Nigma. (Caution: some code readers work better with certain devices. For instance, BlackBerry users may have greater success with i-Nigma and ScanLife.) These apps read most QR codes when you hold your phone over them and press a button (usually the same button used to take a photograph). But every so often they don’t work. Maybe it’s because your hands are shaking. Maybe it’s too dark. Or maybe you’re trying to scan a code created by Microsoft or AT&T, which can be read only when scanned with their own apps. That means downloading yet more apps.
Created in Japan in the 1990s, QR codes connect the physical and online worlds. For instance, at Liberty View Farm in Highland, N.Y., QR codes displayed among the vegetables enable visitors to learn more about farming as they tour the grounds. And in Central Park last year on Arbor Day weekend, parkgoers who scanned QR codes on signs were able to call up vistas from the 1800s and watch video clips of park scenes from “Sex and the City.” At Best Buy, scanning a QR code lets shoppers get details about electronics without having to wait for a sales clerk. In magazines, QR codes on advertisements for the new ABC television series “Pan Am” connect viewers to video teasers.
Macy’s executives, who plan to use QR codes this Christmas shopping season, consider them an integral part of future marketing strategies because, as anyone walking down the street can observe, people are becoming more and more attached to their smartphones.
“Sometimes I’ll run out of the house with two different shoes on but I never, ever forget that mobile device,” Ms. Reardon said.
For Mattel, Fashion’s Night Out was the company’s first major foray into QR technology. “It was an opportunity for us to engage fans on the go,” said Stephanie Cota, senior vice president of global marketing for girls’ brands at Mattel. QR scans during the shopping event were “well into the high hundreds,” she said. “Overall, the response rate was pretty phenomenal.”
And social media can increase the impact of the technology exponentially. Available in different widths and colors, each Skanz QR bracelet is connected to a personalized Skanzsite, filled with the wearer’s contact information, photos, videos, favorite things and links to social media pages like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Tumblr, Google+ and Flickr. Let’s say you buy a Skanz bracelet online ($9.99). When you receive it, you go to Skanz.com and create a personal profile page, enter the serial number on the bracelet, and voilà — your page and your bracelet are now linked.
You can also create different Skanzsites and bracelets for professional and personal use. And if you don’t want a bracelet, there are iPhone 4 cases with QR codes on them ($19.99 to $24.99) and QR decals ($5) that you can stick on an address book or an ID card.
Other brands, like Jumpscan, don’t sell QR accessories but they enable you to create your own QR code and Web page free. You can then store your code in your phone and pull it up whenever you want someone to learn more about you.
It could be a conversationalist’s nightmare, but a multi-tasker’s dream. As Ms. Lewis of the QR Media Group put it: “Who has time to give out all of that information?”