The Next Retail Revolution May Come in Code

Do you know what a QR Code is? If not, stop reading and immediately google QR Code. You cannot afford to wait any longer to find out about an emerging technology that, coupled with the ubiquitous camera-equipped cell phone, may well change the way retailing is conducted in the future.

One of my mentors, the late David Q. Mahler, used to say that all revolutions in retailing reflected fundamental shifts in distribution practices. The department store concept that began in the mid-1800s aggregated diverse products under one roof. Five-and-dime stores brought products to the masses at affordable prices. The mail-order houses of Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck and Co. extended the purchasing options of rural America. Supermarkets transformed the way households bought staples and necessities even as they initiated the self-service revolution by placing products within reach of each patron. Aided by the interstate highway system and the resultant migration of families to the suburbs, the regional mall shifted the nexus of shopping away from urban centers. Specialty stores thrived in the malls, while off-the-mall discount stores and category killers democratized distribution of name brands. As chain stores grew ever stronger, retailers grabbed power from manufacturers. Over the last 10 years power has changed hands once again—the Internet has placed it into the hands of every consumer.

An important extension of that power shift will come when QR Codes become commonplace. It’s already happening in Japan.

For those who couldn’t put this sterling prose down, (and missed the George Clooney look-alike YouTube video by Marcello Di Pietro about QR Codes), here’s a short description of a QR Code. It stands for quick-response code. It’s a symbol, much like a UPC Code, that can be placed on any surface, such as a billboard poster, magazine ad or an apparel hang tag. By taking a picture of a QR Code with a cell-phone camera, you gain instant access to a URL that can describe product attributes in detail or any other relevant data, such as where the product may be bought and at what price. Bingo! Instant price comparisons inside your stores. Actually, customers won’t have to go to stores anymore. They can shop when reading a magazine at the beach, at the beauty salon, in their dorm room. Wherever. Nor will they need to be tethered to a computer or a PDA to be online.

A simple camera-equipped phone will be sufficient to enable purchasing. QR Codes will propel the prophecy that the cell phone will be the most important marketing and communications tool of the first decades of the 21st century. QR Codes make a cell phone more than a passive recipient of text messages. They transform the phone into a proactive mobile-commerce device. Retailing truly will be 24/7/365. Point the camera—click the shutter—read the download—buy the product. Poof—your stores become, as the British say, redundant!

Will it happen? Am I too alarmist? Perhaps. But no less an authority than Bill Gates said last year, “I wholeheartedly believe the mobile phone will become the new PC.” For the 100 million Americans under 30, a cell phone is an extension of the hand. Don’t wait to find out if I’m being too much of a Chicken Little. Start researching QR Codes today. Plan a strategy to co-exist and use them tomorrow.