I’ve previously said that QR codes need to provide information, not just a mobile version of a website. But what if QR (and bar) codes could go beyond that—and provide you with an actual, physical product?
Well, they can—sort of, thanks to new virtual stores. Woolworths Australia is joining the club of stores offering virtual stores that allow consumers to shop on the go by scanning barcodes. The consumer scans a code, orders a product, and the product is delivered directly to the consumer’s home. Tesco has done something similar with QR code shopping in South Korea, gaining perhaps more buzz than traction. Why is that?
Charles Duhigg’s recent New York Times Magazine article on Target’s shopper profiles is getting a lot of attention for its description of the purchase patterns that help Target predict whether a woman is pregnant. However, it’s perhaps even more notable for its coverage of just how ingrained our shopping habits are, and how much better corporations understand our shopping habits than we do:
In the 1980s, a team of researchers led by a U.C.L.A. professor named Alan Andreasen undertook a study of peoples’ most mundane purchases, like soap, toothpaste, trash bags and toilet paper. They learned that most shoppers paid almost no attention to how they bought these products, that the purchases occurred habitually, without any complex decision-making. Which meant it was hard for marketers, despite their displays and coupons and product promotions, to persuade shoppers to change.
But when some customers were going through a major life event, like graduating from college or getting a new job or moving to a new town, their shopping habits became flexible in ways that were both predictable and potential gold mines for retailers. The study found that when someone marries, he or she is more likely to start buying a new type of coffee. When a couple move into a new house, they’re more apt to purchase a different kind of cereal. When they divorce, there’s an increased chance they’ll start buying different brands of beer.
Some see the Woolworths virtual store as more of a publicity stunt than a useful application of QR code shopping (or bar code shopping in this case). But imagine if a virtual store caught harried parents on their way home from work. Wouldn’t a few scans, a quick mobile checkout, and home delivery be easier than going home, loading up the kids, carting them through the store, and fending off tantrums while aiming to tick off items on a shopping list? (One Australian parent confirms the theory.)
Virtual stores with QR code shopping might just be in a position to make it big—if they can establish new shopping habits for consumers. That will require consistent positioning and messaging, as well as targeted deals: get a free coffee at Starbucks now if you order coffee for delivery through the virtual store, for example. Or, put QR code shopping options in or near gyms and fitness centers, just when people are actively thinking of the healthy foods they should buy to make their workouts worth it—or the junk food they crave now that they’ve burned off the calories. Enough deals and enough dedication might win over consumers to virtual shopping. But mere availability won’t be enough.
Habit formation may be part of why pop-up stores didn’t necessarily make it big for eBay. Pop-up stores can foster impulse buys, but not change shopping habits. Doing that requires strategic consistency in offering and encouraging QR code shopping. Here’s hoping stores provide virtual shopping options in ways that make shopping better for consumers, not just more profitable for corporations.