HSN Advances QR Codes To TV—And Then Learns Why They Are So Frustrating

Written by Evan Schuman
October 12th, 2011

HSN last Friday (Oct. 7) took the next logical step with mobile-friendly QR codes by placing them in a corner on the television screen, giving high-definition TV viewers the chance to learn more about the products being shown. In addition, HSN cleverly tried to avoid the QR snafus that other retailers—such as Macy’s—have fallen into by using its on-air hosts to teach visitors how to use the codes.

But the limited four-day experiment also demonstrated the many QR drawbacks that retailers have to struggle with. A reporter for Forbes, for example, tried making a purchase during the event through a QR code and found that her couch was 10 feet away from the screen but that she had to get up to scan the code from five feet away. People who successfully navigated the QR code got to an ordinary Web site page. No discount, no special reward. And how long would the code be displayed?

Then there’s the learning curve. HSN only had the codes up for four days, meaning that by the time the word got out widely, the images were gone. And when we say “gone,” we mean “gone.” The explanation of QR on the homepage is gone and a site search for “QR” yielded nothing. One question in the “frequently asked questions” discussed QR codes in general, and then told readers that “to obtain a QR code reader, visit your smartphone’s app store to download a QR code reading application.” This assumes the reader knows how to do that. It goes on to say that, only “If you are unable to locate a QR code reader” should customers “visit from your mobile browser.”

But how many customers would think to search a FAQ? A call to the HSN customer service helpdesk delivered a call center staffer who said she had no idea what a QR code was. After some explanation, she transferred the call to the customer service group. That person also didn’t know what a QR code was, but after two holds for a supervisor briefing, she said that customers should type “mobile”—not “QR”—in the site’s search engine. That brought customers to a mobile stage, which had one small text link for “About QR Codes.” (And, yes, the “About QR Codes” doesn’t go to a page that describes QR codes, even though such a page exists at That link takes users to a page for Scanlife, a QR code vendor, where they can download Scanlife’s QR reader app.)

The irony is that consumers are supposed to type in “mobile,” when there’s not much reason for them to know to do that. More to the point, a QR code really shouldn’t be on a chain’s mobile site, unless it expects consumers to have two smartphones—one for each hand. The first smartphone would have to display the QR code and the second smartphone would need to look at it and then scan and interpret it. Therefore, the page where HSN’s mobile sites are discussed would seem an odd choice for a QR link.

This confusion is understandable and explains much of why consumers—even young consumers—can’t seem to figure out QR codes. All of those issues notwithstanding, QR codes have huge potential.


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