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ProJo parent Belo had the right idea at the wrong time

October 11, 2011

Back around 2001, the Belo Corporation (which owns the Providence Journal) had plans to invest $37.5 million in a bar code-scanner known as a :CueCat. The concept (using bar codes to get people to buy stuff or link to other information) was a failure, attracting broad ridicule (and hackers).

Yet by 2007, it was evident that the underlying idea had commercial value.

And that’s even more so now, with the growing ubiquity of smart phones. Just consider this recent story in the New York Times, about how the Home Shopping Network began displaying QR codes:

The codes, featured on the corner of the screen, correspond to products for sale. A scan brings the shopper to a product page on HSN’s mobile Web siteor its app, where there is an easy link to the checkout page.

Shoppers have for some time been able to scan QR codes in magazine ads or store windows, but HSN says this is a first for television. If viewers take to the HSN experiment, which runs through Monday, the network said a scan-to-buy feature — where a scan of the onscreen QR code would put the product directly in the viewer’s shopping cart — could be next.

Market research shows that many people do not use QR codes, but some retailers see them as a potentially lucrative form of marketing. Brands like Ralph Lauren, Rachel Zoe and Original Penguin have begun adding icons and color to the traditionally black-and-white codes in an effort to make them more engaging and distinctive. And HSN said this weekend’s experiment was mostly about educating its viewers about the codes, so they could be used more fully in the future.

Somewhere, a :CueCat is meowing. (Even if we’re still waiting for the rollout of the ProJo’s new online iteration.)

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