SmartLabel – A New QR Code Initiative

Recently, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the nation’s largest lobbying group for the consumer product goods industry, has launched a new QR code-based food labeling platform called SmartLabel.


SmartLabel QR codes will be placed on food and non-food packages and, when scanned, they will provide consumers with a myriad of product information that currently cannot be found on product packaging. For example, for food products, SmartLabel will provide information on nutritional information, ingredients, allergens, third-party certifications, social compliance programs, usage instructions, advisories and safe handling instructions, company/brand information and more. For non-food consumer products (e.g., personal care, household and pet care products), SmartLabel includes things such as ingredients, usage instructions, advisories and handling information. In total, about 350 product attributes, some required, some voluntary, will be reported through the SmartLabel.

At present, more than 30 major CPG companies are on the SmartLabel platform and have started to print codes on their packages.

While this initiative to provide consumers with detailed information about the food they purchase and consume might sound simple and straightforward,  the story takes a turn, and a politically correct one at that. Some groups, like the Environmental Working Group (EWG), are trying to sound the alarm and make the case that using QR codes is discriminatory, because people who can’t afford smartphones and or live in areas with the necessary Internet connection won’t be able to access SmartLabel product information. The EWG goes on to give these other reasons as to why QR codes should not be used for SmartLabels. My comments are in bold.

1. Consumers Don’t Scan QR Codes – The number of consumers who scan QR codes to get information about products is low – and not growing.  In general, most consumers simply don’t use smart phones at the point of sale. It’s just not how we shop for food.

MoM: I’m not sure where EWG gets their information because, as far as I know, an up-to-date assessment of QR code scans and usage in the U.S. is nonexistent. But, if companies like ScanBuy and PowaTag remain in business, I can only assume it’s because scan rates are holding steady or trending upward, not down. With respect to consumers not using smart phones at the point of sale, I beg to differ. The in-store use of smartphones (i.e., at the point of sale) is and has been a major trend for some time now. Walk into most any major retailer and consumers will be on their phones comparing prices, searching for promotions, researching product features, etc. Also, to say we don’t shop for food this way doesn’t mean trends and habits can’t or  won’t change. Provide something like SmartLabel and maybe shopping habits will change.

2. Many Consumers Don’t Have Smart Phones – More than 40 percent of consumers – especially low income, less educated and elderly consumers – don’t have phones that can scan QR codes. Installing scanners in every supermarket aisle would be costly for retailers and inconvenient for shoppers.

MoM: Yes, about 40% of the population does not use a smart phone but, why should this stand in the way of making additional information available to everyone else? (SmartLabel information would also be available via desktop.) To frame the argument this way is like saying, not everyone can afford a first-class airplane ticket, so why should airlines bother to offer the service. The trend towards smartphone use will continue, it’s certainly not going to go in the opposite direction. And, the last time I looked, plenty of “eldery” consumers use smartphones.

3. Consumers Won’t Know to Scan – There would be no prompt – like “scan here for GMO” – on the package, so consumers wouldn’t even know that scanning the code would give them more information about their food.

MoM: Now these guys sound ridiculous…see the label, and prompt, that Hershey’s is using: “Scan to Learn What’s Inside.” This is hardly an argument against QR codes.

Hershey Kiss QR Code

4. Codes Hard to Scan – Scanners won’t work if the codes are too small or supermarkets are poorly lit, and there are no rules that set minimum size requirements for QR codes. Plus, codes on bags – like a bag of potato chips – are very difficult to scan because they are not on a flat surface.

MoM: The EWG needs to study QR code technology a bit further. The ability to scan a QR code has more to do with module size (black and white squares in the code), distance from camera/scanner and the resolution of the camera/scanner.  QR codes can, in fact, be incredibly small and still work quite well. In addition, while lighting does play a role, chances are supermarkets and retail stores will be lit well enough for a code to be read. Also, if the package can be laid flat in order to print the code, then it should be able to be flattened enough by the consumer for the code to be scanned.

To hear people talk about QR codes as being discriminatory is new to me. If that were the case, then can’t we say this about consumer access and use of other technologies, products and services, as well?

With respect to the four reasons/arguments cited above against the use of QR codes, none of these are new, and none of them really hold any merit. When are people going to 1) stop thinking consumers are idiots and don’t know, or can’t figure out, how to learn about and or make use of new technology, and 2) stop disparaging QR codes altogether? When deployed correctly and in accordance to best practice, QR codes have proved their ability to add value to marketing and advertising campaigns.

I believe SmartLabels are innovative and useful. Is the platform perfect, maybe not, but it’s a start. I’m sure retailers and CPG companies will be able to make improvements over time.


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