QR Codes – Ready for Their Close-up

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QR codes are finally about to go mainstream, said a recent Mashable op-ed. Fast Company reported seeing the “quick response” codes everywhere at last week’s South by Southwest. And indie booksellers – among them, Left Bank Books and Books Inc. – are increasingly integrating them into their shelf-talkers and newsletters, which has “opened the conversation between customers and staff.”

Mashable suggested some best practices for QR-code marketing, including optimizing for mobile and ensuring that there’s a payoff for the customer. The bonus of marketing with QR codes is that the learning curve is flat and doesn’t require much more than a few clicks using a QR-code generator.

California’s Books Inc. is adding QR codes to some of its more successful shelf-talkers, said co-owner Margie Scott Tucker. “We are also using them as a shelf tag/and or bookmark on new titles, both hardcover and backlist. We’re adding about 24 a week.” In addition, Books Inc. has begun using QR codes on event posters and e-mail blasts. They’ll also show up on the next round of bookmarks and possibly the store newsletter.

Only a small percentage of the e-books that Books Inc. has sold display the QR code in stores, “but more than anything, it has opened the conversation between customers and staff that we do sell e-books – here’s how to do it, here’s how to find them,” Scott Tucker said. “For the moment, that has been as much of my goal as anything.”

The point of displaying the codes, at the moment, is to grab attention and show the store is forward thinking. “As interested as I am in sales, and I hope the QR code will eventually produce and continually increase sales, I am equally interested in showing our customers that we are as interested in the new technologies and formats as they are,” said Scott Tucker. “We believe that showing customers we embrace new ways to offer customer service will benefit our core business model.”

Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri, has also been using QR codes on featured-book shelf-talkers and in its newsletter. Co-owner Jarek Steele heard about other booksellers who are using them at the Winter Institute. “I thought it would be a good way to tie e-books to our bricks-and-mortar store and to remind customers that they can shop locally and still read on their e-readers,” he said.

Scanning the QR codes is simple, but the associated website has to be easily navigable by smart phone. “The main problem is the interface once they scan the code,” said Steele. “It takes them to our website, but it’s very hard to navigate from a smart phone. We need an app that’s specific to each store in IndieBound. In other words, it needs to be a Left Bank Books app. IndieBound isn’t recognizable to many customers, but their favorite store is.” He thinks that to be able to compete with the other e-tailers, Left Bank needs to make using QR codes as easy to use as possible. “It’s our store’s policy to never make the customer work harder than we do, and that’s just what’s happening here,” Steele said.

The American Booksellers Association is, in fact, currently working on a mobile-optimized version of IndieCommerce websites to address this concern, Technology Director Matt Supko confirmed to BTW. The special “mobile theme” would automatically detect if a user is on a smartphone and display a simplified version of the store’s website formatted to the smaller screen.

Although QR codes haven’t yet resulted in sales at Left Bank Books, Steele said, “those who have iPhones and have asked about it, think it’s really cool and are impressed with the effort.”

For more on indie booksellers using QR codes, see an earlier BTW article featuring McLean & Eakin Booksellers and Green Apple Books.