September 28, 2010, 5:34 PM

Is bar code scanning big? Depends on who you ask.

Two reports tell different tales of just how prevalent mobile bar code scanning really is.

Retailers are trying it, vendors are touting it and app developers are using it. But there’s no consensus on how consumers are taking to the idea of using their mobile phones to scan bar codes to get more information or discounts.

A report released today by mobile bar code scanning technology provider Scanbuy Inc. finds global mobile bar code scanning via its ScanLife mobile platform is up 700% compared with the beginning of the year. Beginning in July 2010, Scanbuy adds, consumers began conducting more scans each month than they did in all of 2009. However, the vendor did not say how often consumers are using the application.

The study measured consumers using their phones to scan both 1-D Universal Product Code (UPC) bar codes—the series of lines and numbers commonly found on products on store shelves—as well as scanning of more sophisticated 2-D bar codes, which store data both vertically and horizontally and can contain much more information than their 1-D counterparts.

From June 1 through Sept. 15, users scanned conventional 1-D bar codes and 2-D bar codes equally, Scanbuy says, which the company says shows consumers are less concerned with code format and more interested in getting information quickly. It also reports that shoppers are scanning a wide variety of products. The top UPC categories include health and beauty, with 21.2% of scans, and grocery, with 14.4%. Scanbuy says consumers most often used its UPC scanning app to research and complete health and beauty, books and electronics purchases.

Among U.S. consumers, shoppers in California scan the most, Scanbuy reports. Half  of all Scanbuy users are between 35 and 54, and 74% are male.

However, another report from Forrester Research Inc. released last week suggests the more sophisticated type of mobile bar code scanning is far from prevalent among U.S. consumers. The report, “2-D Bar Codes: Learn Why There’s No Urgency,” finds only 1% of U.S. mobile phone owners have used a 2-D bar code scanning app in the past three months. The vast majority of these are smartphone owners with iPhones or Android devices, with adoption reaching 5% among U.S. smartphone owners, Forrester says. 25% of Android owners have used 2-D bar code scanning. Apple comes in second with 7% of iPhone users trying the technology.

Bar code scanning, whether 1-D or 2-D, can aid a retailer, or serve as its enemy. Retailers like Nine West are using bar code scanning technology for their own marketing purposes. Nine West launched a mobile marketing campaign to promote its Fall 2010 Vintage America Collection, which is endorsed by singer Joss Stone. The retailer worked with mobile marketing firm JagTag to incorporate 2-D bar codes on in-store signage, as well as on the collection’s product packaging. When a consumer took a picture of a 2-D bar code and sent the image either via text message or e-mail to a designated phone number, she was entered into a contest to win apparel, as well as text and video messages of Stone’s performances, behind-the-scenes videos and how-to style tips.

But consumers also can use bar code scanning apps while standing in a store to compare prices with the prices of online or other bricks-and-mortar retailers. Apps such as myShopanion and RedLaser, which was recently purchased by eBay Inc., enable consumers to scan traditional bar codes and search the web for product reviews, descriptions and prices.

While a lower price found through a scan may pose a threat to stores, Greg Girard program director, merchandise strategies at IDC Retail Insights, says consumers think about more than just price when shopping.  He says services play a big role too as a consumer considers a purchase. A consumer might see something at one store but likes to shop at another chain better, perhaps because she can earn loyalty points or because the other store has a more lenient return policy.

Paula Rosenblum, managing partner at Retail Systems Research says retailers should look to leverage bar code scanning with their own promotions to learn more about in-store shoppers.

“I think we have to look beyond just price comparison.” she says. “From the retailer side, you can learn more and more about a potential customer, depending on the kinds of items they scan and view.  It’s a better idea to look beyond the single transaction to the long-term relationship with the customer so that you can start to learn her patterns.”

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