2013.02 | 2D Codes and Point of Service

barcode2D barcodes are often involved in a question someone will ask me about point of service hardware and software.  The general question: We are updating our POS system and/or scanner.  Can your scanner read 2D barcodes?  I want to be sure I am prepared for whatever solution operations or marketing may request.

This 2D concern is very much tied to another question I first broached it in 2010 when I discussed how to scan from mobile phone screens.  At that point the question of possibility was the biggest one.  Retailers, marketers and technology companies are still sorting out the best way to interact with mobile devices.

In 2013, the short answer is often: “Yes, the scanner will read 2D barcodes”.  Newer scanners have imagers (small cameras) built into them that allow the scanners to reliably scan a traditional 1D code from the reflective surface of a mobile screen.  Those same imagers built into the scanners can also read 2D barcodes – whether they are on paper or on a mobile device screen.  If your organization is going to buy scanners, I wholeheartedly recommend purchasing a unit with either an imager upgrade option, or better yet, the imager already included in the unit.

So – most retail point of service scanners have the ability to read traditional 1D barcodes and 2D barcodes.  In order to scan those codes, the scanners need to be programmed to read the codes chosen by the retailer for reading.  That means we can turn on and off the types of codes we want to read.

Now that we have answered the question of CAN a scanner read a 2D barcode at Point of Service, let’s examine whether a scanner SHOULD be used to read 2D barcodes at point of service.

I generally do NOT recommend activating 2D barcode reading on scanners at the point of service, however, if 2D barcodes are to be activated for scanning, the usage and type needs to be clearly understood and planned upon well in advance.

First, consider the characteristics of the code types used for retail at the very basic level:

1D barcode characteristics:

  • 115879barcodedemoprovide limited information: only a few digits
  • used to identify a product or item in a store by matching the barcode to a product in a database
  • scans very quickly
  • mostly scanned by retailers (though increasingly scanned by consumers; see showrooming)

These codes are about simple and speeding transactions.

2D barcode characteristics:

  • can encode a longer string of informationbarcode
  • used for secure items like ticketing /payment/coupons – used to direct scanners to a URL
  • scan a bit slower
  • mostly scanned by consumers with a mobile device (though sometimes scanned at POS)

These codes are to pass more detailed information and were not originally designed for use at Point of Service.  (Tickets and payment are different – they make some sense with 2D, but let’s set those aside for now).

Second, consider how 2D codes will be used.  Generally, I have seen 2 potential usages for 2D barcodes at a traditional point of service where the idea of scanning a 2D barcode has become interesting to a retailer.

tesco loyalty card mobile device ticketing john davies omniticket 2501. Loyalty Card – Increasingly retailers note that we don’t want to carry more cards in our wallets.  It’s free and simple to carry an app.  Why not provide a way for consumers to carry their loyalty card without a card?   This is a wonderful idea, but a 2D barcode is not necessary.  There are 1D barcodes that can easily pass the data required to the POS to identify the loyalty card holder.  No need for 2D here.

2. Coupons – The concerns around coupon fraud have driven retailers to consider using coupons with more security or one time offer numbers that are represented by 2D barcodes.   This is a valid option, but if coupons are now offered on mobile devices in this form, it can cause some problems.  What if the consumer has 6 coupons?  Does the attendant scan their phone, and then hand it back and then wait for them to scroll to the next coupon?   From a transactional perspective, this is awkward, time consuming, and prone to dropping a mobile device.  Instead, a better option is to move customers to a ‘coupon to card’ strategy that allows them to opt in to offers.  As soon as the customer purchases an item with an outstanding offer and their loyalty card identifies them, they automatically get the offer.  No coupon required.  Fraud potential is reduced.  Transaction is not impeded.  Not simple, but a better solution for many reasons.

There are many many other potential uses for 2D that are more useful and productive at a point of service like payment or tickets, but this discussion is focused on traditional POS usage.

So, with all of this in mind, what are the points of consideration around reading 2D barcodes?

  1. What are the codes being used for?  Ensure the usage fits the code.  There are more out there than you think.  Making sure it fits the use is key.
  2. What type of code is going to be used?  Only activate the ones you wish to use on the scanners.  Turning on others exposes the POS to potential failures as information unrecognized by the POS SW may be scanned – potentially causing a POS freeze at the front end.
  3. What is the transaction flow going to be like?  Avoid passing mobile phones to store staff if possible to avoid dropped devices.  Handheld or customer facing scanners are preferred to minimize these issues.
  4. How will the POS software interpret the string passed from the mobile device?  Does a cashier have to select a particular function BEFORE scanning the device? Make sure this is activated, as simple as possible and clear to the operator.
  5. What potential issues may arise from scanning a 2D barcode at POS?  Operational? Training?  It’s important to consider all aspects.

Here are some general recommendations based on experience with scanning from mobile devices and scanning 2D barcodes in a grocery environment:

If a retailer wants to read traditional 1D barcodes (not 2D barcodes) from the screen of a mobile device:

  1. For self-checkout lanes use an integrated imager in the scanner scale to allows customers to read 1D barcodes from mobile devices.
  2. For assisted service lanes use a handheld or customer facing stationary scanner-imager so that customers DO NOT have to pass their mobiles across the register to cashiers.
  • As mentioned, passing mobile devices could result in dropped and broken devices. It also interrupts the flow and pace of a transaction.

If a retailer wants to read 2D barcodes on either paper or mobile devices:

  1. For self-checkout do NOT enable 2D codes on Scanner-Scales if possible to simplify usage by consumers. Use 1D codes for coupons, offers, and loyalty cards if possible. For 2D codes provide a handheld wireless imager (either attached to self-checkout or from attendant) to read 2D codes if they are necessary. Ensure self-checkout, scanner and POS software are all programmed to read 2D codes correctly.
  2. For assisted service lanes do NOT enable 2D codes on Scanner-Scales.  If 2D barcodes are required, provide wireless handheld or stationary imager to read the 2D codes. Ensure self-checkout, scanner and POS software are all programmed to read 2D codes correctly.
  • Photo 2013-01-03 10 08 27 PMConsider that many suppliers have added 2D barcodes to their labels to allow consumers quick access to their facebook page or webpage.  If 2D barcode reading is enabled on scanner scales, the system does not know which barcode to read – the product 1D code or the 2D code (see image).  Scanner-imagers will pick up whatever is in front of them and customers and cashiers alike should not have to cover a 2D barcode to scan the traditional one to complete a transaction!
  • You could enable 2D barcodes on scanner-scales IF they are not QR codes used on product in the store.  For example, PDF417 are not usually used on product and those may be fine.

2D barcodes are potentially useful in the right environment.  Retailers are right to be ready to use them.  The bigger question is whether they are used for the right thing in the right context.  Retailers should be careful that they enhance the customer and store staff experience, and not make more work for all concerned!

2009.51 | Quick Thoughts on Trends

Tis the season for packed schedules.  Given the lack of time for all, here are a few very brief items around retail technology (ok, some of it goes beyond retail) for 2010:

2009 has seen lots of change, expect more in 2010!

2009.47 | Paper Free Offers Please

Given the state of the global economy, special offers have become the new normal in retail.  Retailers are increasingly able to offer relevant offers on products and services desired by individual consumers.  Consumers who are loyal in these fickle times are rewarded with great deals. 

A technology decision such as requiring a barcoded coupon can have a heavy influence on the closure of a sale.  If a physical coupon is required and forgotten, there can be disasterous concequences.  The consumer may make a special trip to a location, spend sigificant time and energy to fill a basket, and then discover that the offer can not be redeemed. 

The end result is an abandoned basket, at best.  At worst, a customer will feel cheated by the retailer for forgetting a slip of paper.  This sort of small annoyance finds its way to places like Consumerist, or onto Twitter.  While these small annoyances were not worth addressing in the past – with no facility for consumers to vent such a small issue, these items could be ignored.  These new media provide instant response, and the potential for massive backlashes never before possible.

The opportunity to bring a consumer closer to a retailer – to make them more loyal – has been transformed into a pain point for the consumer.  And why the pain point?  Why is it necessary that we all kill trees and feed toner onto paper so that a barcode can be scanned?   The reasons are myriad, and include:

  • Limiting the offer - Perhaps retailers don’t want to provide the offer to the general population, but to a select audience.  Perhaps they are limiting the stock for a BOGO or free item.  While this is sometimes the case, many offers generally encourage you to send them to friends and family and use them over and over again. 
  • Sweethearting – Retailers want to reign in associates who give discounts to people on their whim – they could give it to everyone.  Using a barcode provides an audit trail with the paper coupon and the scanning requirement that will minimize the impact of a dishonest cashier providing discounts to unqualified individuals.
  • Tracking - Any campaign requires measurement, and some campaigns may want to track where the consumer found the offer, so they can understand their multi-channel mix.  There may be different barcodes for e-mail, flyers, newspaper ads, for whatever medium was used to validate the offer source.

There has to be some way to meet these very reasonable retailer needs in some manner without the handicap of a paper coupon – a 19th century innovation.  Unfortunately, barcodes can’t be scanned directly from most mobile devices, so this problem may take some time to be resolved with technology.  While there are some amazing opportunities using 2d barcodes or coupon apps to bridge this divide that are wholeheartedly encouraged, an interim measure that works for all consumers – not just mobile users – is key to avoid the bad press on line that can sink brand capital – particularly in the online world where bad press spreads so quickly.

As always the best route is to make the technology as invisible to the consumer as possible.  Why not make the unique barcode something that can be entered manually if the client reads it off their device to the cashier?  If there are concerns about limiting or sweethearting, why not have a code that the cashiers can enter manually if a customer mentions the offer, and a different code if it is scanned?  If the coupon is fundamentally required, offer a lesser discount without it. 

No matter the answer, it’s important to consider the desired end state, and not get caught in technology for it’s own sake – be it a barcode or a mobile device.  The solution has to be simple for the consumer.

2009.45 | Produce Barcodes | Apple POS | Mobile Recipes & Ads

Produce Barcodes - The barcode is so deeply ingrained into our lives in so many ways that it’s invisible to most people.  Produce in grocery stores is one of the last great frontiers in getting barcodes in place consistently on all products.  The effort to get GS1 Databar in place is ongoing and has been for many years to simplify produce purchases.

A recent article indicates that the USDA may approve laser etching on produce as an alternative to today’s stickers. This is probably a step backward from a checkout throughput and scanning accuracy perspective.  The laser etching indicated in the article doesn’t look easily readable by a scanner if a barcode was printed on the produce, particularly if the produce has a dark skin.  It also remains to be seen if the laser etching could show the kind of detail that would be ideal given tracking concerns relative to food recalls that have cropped up in recent years.

It will probably take some time for the laser etching to come into use, if it becomes common at all.  There was a slightly different scheme in 2006 whereby farmers were putting stencils on apples to allow them to grow with barcodes.  There was no word on the results since that time, but one would wonder about the difficulty in scanning red codes with today’s red laser barcode scanners.

Apple Store POS – More word that Apple is changing from their current EasyPay handheld POS solution in the Apple Store to a new iPod Touch based solution.   The handheld solution is a great fit for the Apple Store environment, and if they can use their own platform, it will be a coup for them.  It will be interesting to see what sort of MSR reader they use on the iPod touch for payments, and even more interesting to see if they bother in Canada where EMV will not allow the MSR swipe in October 2010.

IMG_1027Mobile Recipes & Ads - Whole Foods recently released an iPhone app that provide users to a selection of recipes and store information.  On the positive side  there are lots of great recipes that allow search by course, ingredients, and even what is on hand.  There is also a good store locator with specifics on each site.  Unfortunately there is no obvious option that provides a complete shopping list other than the long list of ingredients in each individual recipe.  The store information should also leverage the great job that they are doing with Twitter, but doesn’t appear to do so as yet.

This month’s Wired Magazine leveraged a mobile app called kooaba.  By taking a picture of the ads in the magazine with the app, the ads are recognized, and special content related to the ad is provided. For example, taking a photo of the ad for the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G, the screen provided options to buy the product online, call T-mobile, follow the solution on Twitter or watch a commercial about the product.  While gimmicky, this sort of application would absolutely be of value for a complex product a customer is very interested in.

2009.18 | Startpages | SelfScan | eDeals

Startpages - Want to get all the information you need to do your job and not clog your inbox or spend hours “surfing the interweb”? I encourage everyone I know to take the time to establish a personal start page. You can add RSS feeds of your favourite trade publications, magazines, newspapers, blogs, or even RSS feeds of Google News searches for any topic.

I’ve scooped people many times on important industry information or even news releases from their own company in this way by looking at my screen every morning for five minutes just like anyone else and no additional work. There are many platforms available, but I use Netvibes (it has mobile versions so I can see it anywhere) , but you can also use iGoogle, My Yahoo, and Pageflakes to name a few. I highly recommend it as a productivity gain and a great way to learn about what is going on in the retail industry, and with relevant organizations and solutions.

SelfScan – Being in self service, I sometimes hear questions about scanning your own items as you walk around with the store. Various organizations have tried this idea and variations on it. I haven’t seen it stick anywhere as of yet. Why not?

A recent article decried this solution as being the way of the future – interesting based on the fact that the technology has been around for years and hasn’t caught on with significant installations. From the customer perspective, it looks like a great idea – you’re walking around anyway – why not scan as you go? Here’s a few thoughts:

Inconvenience - how many times do you pick up things and put them back – more than you think – now add scanning and unscanning every time you do it. NOT ideal for most shoppers who are not patient with technology.

Security - How do you verify customers are taking what they scanned? Check them all at the end? How do you de-activate EAS security tags without an attendant or a station? What about people who dishonestly swap barcodes from one item to another?

Technical Issues - If there are issues on the floor, store staff now have to help people all over the floor instead of at the front end of the store.

Weighable Items - Do you trust customers to weigh items on their own? Most people are honest, but some could mis-identify what they weighed to get a cheaper price for what they buy. With no attendant, who would know? With a clerk to validate and check you out, what is the benefit?

Investment - Technology costs have dropped so this has improved, but wear and tear in retail is legendary – particularly in environments like grocery and DIY. Add the uncertain element of customers who will drop or break units, or even steal them, and costs will rise.

Network Security - Retailers are giving customers unencumbered unattended access to a wireless device that is connected to their network. You can encrypt it, but there is a way to break into everything. Nobody wants to be the next TJX.

Customer Time Savings - Many implementations allow you to go to registers at the end anyway. If you only get a few things, scanning time is pretty negligable. Scanning is a relatively small part of any transaction – it’s tendering that takes the time. Using this solution today, time and effort savings are low, and potential errors are high.

I think scan as you go is intriguing and will eventually get to a point where it is practicable, but there is a lot of work to be done on the operational validation. Retail transacations are a complex balance of browsing, selection, scanning, tendering, and security. With so many elements, there are a million ways to fall down, and no retailer wants to do that today.

UPDATE: According to a recent Washington Post article, these units are in use at Stop & Shop, Giant Food, Food Lion, Bloom. Who knew. I’m still against being audited as it goes against the whole time savings.

eDeals - Mobile coupons are growing. Coupon Sherpa, Yowza, and others are embracing the fact that consumers have a device in their pocket that is rapidly replacing their wallet. With the ongoing decline of paper based newspapers, digital natives and smartphone users becoming a greater portion of retailer wallet share, and the trackable nature of electronic media, expect this trend to continue.

I encourage grocery clients to move away from using paper flyers and towards electronic for the same reasons above. With fewer newspapers in business, expect printing costs to rise, and store flyers to become more expensive. Retailers could reduce their flyer print runs, or reduce the page count and encourage clients to move to the electronic version from the paper. Customer reaction to specials and items can be gauged by click-throughs, and retailers can drive a true interractive relationship with their customers.

2009.14 | Barcodes | Changing Shoppers | Cards

Barcodes Revisited – NCR pretty much wrote the book on barcodes, but they are constantly evolving, with GS1 Databar and its myriad flavours. Being able to read barcodes and interact with data from the real world with the mobile is growing easier, as my post on SnapTell and ShopSavvy explained, and 2D barcodes and Microsoft Tag technology are also driving it along. Taking it a step further, instead of pointing to something else, some barcodes can contain the content directly.

Changing Shoppers – A recent Time article talked about some changes in today’s shoppers, including their use of technology to comparison shop, the glut of stores in America, and the impact on retailers today.

Cards Technology – The plethora of plastic card products overwhelming the world cannot be ignored. Gift cards, pre-paid mobile phone cards, chip and pin cards, NFC cards, and RFID cards of all stripes are part of our changing retail landscape. There are some interesting twists on the technology that I’ve been looking at lately. There are gift card printers that allow plastic cards to be printed with different retailer logos, values, pictures and messages on them. There are new RFID cards that are ONLY activated when the user applies pressure to avoid security issues. Concerned about the ecological impact of plastic cards on the environment? New biodegradable Envirocards avoid landfills being filled with cards for millions of years.

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