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QR code-enabled virtual stores support merchants’ mobile shopping strategies

Retailers such as Walmart and Peapod continue to embrace QR codes to support virtual stores that highlight how easy it is for on-the-go consumers to purchase everyday items via their smartphones.

QR codes make sense for these initatives because many consumers know what a QR code is and that they can scan one with their smartphone to link to an online site. Still, sales are not always the objective here – in some cases, it is more about raising awareness of mobile shopping more broadly.

“It really put our mobile app on the map and the whole concept of being able to grocery shop anytime, anywhere,” said Peg Merzbacher, director of marketing at Peapod, Chicago. “It was a breakthrough marketing initiative that really communicated that very well.

“We had a lot of visitors to our Web site and saw good downloads,” she said. “From a realistic shopping perspective, nobody in their right mind would actually ever really shop off those because there was only room for 50 items and we carry 11,000.

“The concept was really breakthrough to see a realistic grocery shelf in strange places like a subway station in Washington, DC or a commuter rail station in Long Island. People were like, ‘Whoa, I guess I really can shop for groceries while I am waiting for the train.'”

Walmart embraces QR codes
Walmart is one of the retailers that has been a big proponent of leveraging QR codes for virtual shopping. The retailer recently teamed up with Procter & Gamble once again to leverage QR codes for virtual shopping, this time around placing the 2D bar codes on 50 bus shelters in Toronto.

The four-week program enables mobile users to purchase diapers, mascara, shampoo and toothpaste by scanning a QR code.

Last summer, Walmart partnered with Procter & Gamble to place QR codes on bus shelters and trucks in Chicago and New York to encourage on-the-go consumers to scan and instantly buy products from brands such as Tide, Pampers and Gillette (see story).

Walmart has also been partnering with other brands on virtual shopping initiatives.

During the holiday shopping season, Walmart and Mattel teamed up to bring a mobile-enabled toy store to commuters in Toronto that enabled smartphone users easily purchase holiday gifts on the way to work by scanning a QR code that appeared next to toy images.

Driving sales
Peapod is also continuing its efforts to leverage QR codes in public spaces to drive awareness of mobile shopping.

In October, Peapod expanded its program into seven regions following a test in Chicago and Philadelphia that showed mobile app downloads increased significantly in these markets.

This year, Peapod’s virtual grocery shelves and mobile app message are appearing in Chicago, Boston, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, reaching shoppers via signs at community recreation centers, on coffee sleeves at local cafes and a mobile billboard traveling through each market through the end of summer.

Peapod will also distribute 10,000 t-shirts through radio partnerships to drive awareness of the virtual store initiative.

Other retailers embracing similar strategies include Junk Food clothing, and PayPal.

Online retailer Junk Food clothing saw good results from QR codes placed on signs around malls.

“We found that we had great results with occasion-based merchandising and product exclusives,” said Andrei Najjar, vice president of marketing at Junk Food, Los Angeles. “For example, if there was a movie release coming out and we were debuting an exclusive design in the QR code store, we got a significant sales lift vs. more in-line styles.

Reaching new customers
This year, the Junk Food program is moving from Lightbox walls to mall directories. The online retailer is also exploring bringing the concept to additional locations, including hospitality and movie theaters.

“The great thing about QR code stores is they can be put anywhere that printing is appropriate,” Mr. Najjar said. “It is a great option for erecting pop-ups quickly and inexpensively, so we are also exploring doing a series of pop-ups at major cultural events throughout the year like Comicon.”

Retailers have zeroed in on QR codes as a way to help them reach new customers who are not coming into their stores with a convenient way to shop while they are on the go. This is why the QR codes are typically placed in heavily-trafficked areas such as commuter train platforms.

Shoppable billboards are also a unique form of interactive advertising for retailers.

User experiences fall short
However, without the right use case and merchandise mix, results can fall short for retailers.

For example, a Toys R Us deployment at an airport terminal a couple of years ago leveraged a large poster – which captured attention. However, because the hallway was narrow, actually scanning the QR codes was difficult.

“As a user it wasn’t all that great of an experience to try to shop the poster without standing in the middle of traffic,” said Nikki Baird, Denver-based managing partner at RSR Research. “It’s those little, subtle things that I think retailers still need to figure out.

For online retailers, the strategy provides a physical presence that can help them drive awareness.

One of the challenges with the strategy is ensuring that the mobile shopping experience truly delivers on the promise of convenience by making it easy for users to quickly enter the necessary information so that they can complete a purchase while on the go.

“It is not about the code, it is about the destination and the engagement with the utility of the site that you are directed to,” said Stephen Burke, vice president of mobile at Resource, Columbus, OH.

“Historically, a lot of brands have fallen short on that because they either directed people to a non smartphone-enabled site where the experience is less than optimal or to a hastily-assembled microsite,” he said.

“What we are seeing now is that brands are really emphasizing a better experience for the consumer.”

Final Take
Chantal Tode is associate editor on Mobile Commerce Daily, New York