Mobile Shopping in Japan Booms with QR Codes

One of the most powerful drivers for rapid technology adoption in retail is the "de facto" standard. Industry-wide adoption of an open ecosystem based on globally agreed-upon standards is a good -- and sometimes necessary -- but often consumer demand moves faster than standards bodies, and being in the right place at the right time with a solution that meets that demand can make a proprietary "standard" the norm throughout a market.

Nowhere has this spread of a "de facto" standard had more of an impact on retail shopping than in Japan, where shoppers can use their mobile phones in ways that elude most of us in the rest of the world -- using the camera to read barcodes and get more information and using their phone as an electronic wallet to pay for anything from drinks at vending machines to high-end jewelry.

While the United States and Western Europe have been debating whether barcodes should be direct or indirect, black and white or color, centrally managed or a free-for-all, Japan quietly centered around using the "QR Code," a technology developed by Denso-Wave in 1994. While there is much debate over the relative merits of the QR Code versus other competing two-dimensional barcodes (such as Data Matrix and Microsoft Tag), it has without question become THE standard in Japan.

Unlike the United States, where consumers must download special apps to read barcodes, virtually every smartphone in Japan can read QR Codes "out of the box," making it simple and easy for shoppers to use.

So how is the ubiquity of barcodes redefining shopping in Japan?

Product information. Many - if not most - food products sold in Japan, from fast food to grocery stores, have a QR Code on them that has nutritional information to help shoppers make better decisions about what products they buy.

Wayfinding. Getting lost in Japan is hard, especially when QR Codes provide instant wayfinding advice, especially when combined with GPS. Want to find a particular store in a mall? Hit the QR Code and let your phone guide you to it.
Loyalty/CRM. Signing up for a mailing list is as simple as snapping a photo with your phone, and has the advantage to the retailer of integration via the Web rather than at the POS.

Beyond shopping, QR Codes are turning up in other unique places as well in Japan: Tokyo's "N Building" features a QR Code designed into the fascia that gives visitors an augmented reality view of the building when they point their phones at it.

The ubiquity of a single standard - regardless of its technical perfection - is a win for Japanese shoppers, who - unlike their American counterparts - are able to use their mobile phones as a truly useful tool when finding stores, getting product information, and connecting with retailers. Either adopting a single 2D barcode standard, or - more likely - making handsets that natively read all major formats is a critical step in the evolution of mobile retailing.

Jim Crawford is the executive director of the Global Retail Executive Council
(GREC) an international association of retail executives, service providers, and industry experts that examines retail trends and best practices the world over. For more information or to join GREC, please visit
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