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Boost Your Sales and Enhance Your Brand With Little-Known QR Codes

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Quick response codes have the potential to boost your sales, enhance your brand and turn your plain vanilla print advertisement into an interactive, multi-media marketing machine. "QR, which stands for quick response, is a free format that businesses can use to embed their contact information, website addresses, 2011-07-12-CraigAberle71211.jpglinks to videos, and all kinds of info.," says Craig Aberle, a Sarasota resident and founder of Barcode.com. "I have one on the back of my business card."

QR codes are two-dimensional bar codes that are widely used in Europe and Japan but are just beginning to appear in America as more of us own the smart phones needed to scan them.

You have likely seen their one-dimensional, bar code predecessors being scanned at checkout counters to ring up your purchases. IBM introduced them in 1974 and retailers initially used them to keep track of their inventories.

But unlike their one-dimensional forerunners, QR codes have a much larger capacity to store information. Scanning them with your smart phone immediately links you to product information, discount coupons or even a virtual house-tour when you scan one on a sign posted in front of a property for sale.

Aberle says that real estate sales agents are beginning to use QR codes "instead of having to refill those little boxes in the front of properties for sale with flyers, all the time." He includes a QR code in his email signature with a message reading, "Scan this image with your cellphone to automatically import my contact info."

I asked Corky Vetten about the strange looking, QR codes on his real estate billboards in western North Carolina and north Georgia. They resemble Rorschach Inkblots used in psychological testing. Therapists use them to examine a person's personality characteristics, emotional stability and disorders.

Vetten is a broker with Exit Realty Mountain View Properties and he told me that prospective homebuyers scan the QR codes with their smart phones. And when they do, it links them to his web site. He also imprints QR codes on for-sale signs in front of each property.

"If you are standing at street level and photograph the bar code on a (for sale) sign, you get the individual information on the house," he says. The prospective purchaser "can take a virtual tour of the house." He says that some of his real estate prospects get into town late at night, scan QR codes on for-sale signs, take virtual tours of the houses and call him in the morning for more information.

But Mike Payne believes that it is premature to know if QR coding will be a bonanza for selling real estate. The Sarasota, Fla.-based real estate agent with Sandals Realty says, "QR codes are very new and unknown to most people." He sells real estate in southwest Florida and observes, "Our Sarasota-Bradenton market is not a big user of QR codes."

In addition to selling real estate, Payne is a restaurant consultant. He says that QR codes work better in the restaurant industry than they do for real estate. "We've utilized 'tents' on tables, encouraging guests to scan codes, exchanging email for discounts or free dessert or drink," he says. "The restaurant owner can stay in touch" with customers and "build deeper relationships."

QR code scanning will increase exponentially with the burgeoning of smart phone sales. And according to a Nielson survey, 45 percent of current cellphone shoppers will purchase smart phones. By the end of 2011, Nielson expects "more smart phones in the U.S. market than feature phones."

QR codes hold much more information than their one-dimensional predecessors and their uses are limitless, Mike Ricci says. He is vice president of Webtrends and on June 26 he was a speaker at "The QR Code's Impact on Direct Mail and Print," online webinar hosted by Target Marketing Magazine. "QR codes, text messaging and these kinds of technologies bring interactivity to (print) ads and facilitate all kinds of advanced engagement," Ricci e-mailed me.

He says by including QR codes in newspaper and magazine advertisements, the reader can scan them and instantly, "get coupon, location finder, see a video, go to a mobile Web site, download an app, enter a sweepstakes, etc." In other words, the print advertisement becomes a seamless and interactive complement to online merchandising.

Chris Wayman, vice president of mobile marketing for Merkle, also spoke at the webinar and mentioned several QR code providers including Micro QR, Datamatrix, EZ and Microsoft Tag. "Depending on the code type, look and feel," he says, the ease of "customization can vary" among the different providers.

Wayman's presentation highlighted several companies that are test-marketing QR codes to increase their sales. At Brookstone, the catalogue and luxury giftstore retailer, for example, they "provide pricing information, product education through videos and demonstrations of how the product works." Ethical Bean Coffee Co. snags customers who scan advertisements, place orders and have a cup of hot coffee waiting for them when they arrive at the store -- all accomplished via their smart phones. Wayman says the company's "business has doubled."

Webtrends' Ricci points to Japan's experience with QR codes to forecast what we can expect in America as more of us use smart phones. "76 percent of the Japanese surveyed know they have the ability to access QR codes," he says, and adds that the top three reasons they scan the codes are; 31.6 percent wanted a discount coupon, 30.9 percent were motivated by special promotions and 22.7 percent sought product information.

Barcode.com's Aberle recommends an article by Marsha Harmon, vice president of Q.E.D. Systems called, "QR Codes, Everything you wanted to know." It is a basic primer with examples of bar code types.

But Jerry Osteryoung, director of outreach services for Florida State University's Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship, recommends caution before taking the plunge. He wrote in a QR code column, "When new technology comes out, you have to make a very careful assessment of whether it is appropriate for your business."

Jerry Chautin is a volunteer SCORE business counselor, business columnist and SBA's 2006 national "Journalist of the Year" award winner. He is a former entrepreneur, commercial mortgage banker, commercial real estate dealmaker and business lender. You can follow him at www.Twitter.com/JerryChautin