QR codes: we'll soon be buying our groceries at the bus stop

QR codesQR codes come with both benefits and risks to smart-phone loving shoppers.

With my old, camera-less flip phone I'm not going to be joining the QR-code party any time soon, but even I can see that they can be very useful to save customers both time and money.
You may not know what they are, but you've probably still seen them around. Quick-response codes are the square bar codes that look like badly laid mosaics. Smart-phone users take photos of them and then they are decoded in seconds and their secrets revealed.

QR codes can hold a surprising amount of information. They are being used in many ways: from replacing train tickets to storing the contents of emails, and even by the Swedish to compare who has the most sex.

But enough about sex. Let's talk groceries!
The plodding behemoth that is Tesco got to this technology long before me, and I've just caught up with it in Seoul, South Korea. There it has become the number one supermarket despite having much less floor space than its largest competitor.

It's achieved this by putting up posters of its goods in underground stations, displaying them much like they do in store. Each image of a cling-filmed rump steak or tin of sardines has a QR code, which you can scan in and order for delivery while you're waiting for your train. It's perfect for the hard-working South Koreans, who perhaps understand better than most that time is money.

It's not just Tesco
Staples has copied Tesco in Argentina, with "stores" located at tube and bus stations. It was a rapid expansion for the stationery supplier, which has just two real shops in the city of Buenos Aires.

Back to groceries, and Co-op supermarkets have been using QR codes in a way that makes me want to get a fancy new mobile phone, if only they didn't cost hundreds of pounds, or even more through expensive contracts.

The Co-op's codes give you more information about where individual items of food come from and how they got to the store. The codes also reveal the health benefits of the food items and some tips on using them in the kitchen.

Still, since most Co-op customers don't even have smart phones, each product also has a number you can send a text message to, in order to get the same information more or less instantly. Even my Samsung E1150 can manage that.

QR codes aren't all good news for customers
QR codes are being used for marketing and advertising. While advertising might sometimes tell you something you'd want to know, ultimately it isn't about helping customers. It's about getting us to buy more stuff, and usually more expensive stuff.

This is not necessarily a good thing in a country that has been obsessed with buying more than we need for the past decade or two. Marketing often makes you think you want or need something that won't really make you any happier at all.

Even worse, it can make you spend more money when you think you're saving it. According to econsultancy.com, more than 40% of internet users would scan a QR code to access a discount voucher. As I revealed in Voucher codes leave you worse off! there's a pretty good chance you'll be worse off afterwards, compared to if you'd just shopped around without a voucher.

Another danger with QR codes will be the impulse buy. You scan in a code out of curiosity and are told about some fancy item for sale. If the item has show-off value, those smartphone users who like to impress their friends with their conspicuous consumption will have bought it through their phones before their brain has time to say 'click "Ignore."'

It's a bit like spontaneously buying clothes you'll never wear, only you make the snap decision even faster.

Will we be getting virtual supermarkets?
Like the Koreans, we're no slouches ourselves, so will Tesco be saving our time and petrol money by offering its groceries and TVs at bus stops and tube stations here any time soon?

Tesco is being coy and hasn't responded to my question. From a quick search for "QR code" in its last two annual reports, it seems it hasn't even told its shareholders about how it's managed to become the number one in South Korea. That secrecy could be a clue.

...Alright, I know you want more details, so here's the story on QR codes and Swedish love-making.

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