2D 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:
- provide 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 information
- 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.
1. 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- For self-checkout lanes use an integrated imager in the scanner scale to allows customers to read 1D barcodes from mobile devices.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Consider 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!