Next time you are in a local store owned by a national retailer, look for small square ink-blot patterns on product display for merchandise.
Those patterns are called Quick Response codes and although they aren't everywhere just yet, experts predict they soon will be as more people swap their old cell phones for new smart phones.
Most big area retailers are using them now, and without a doubt QR codes are in the retail mainstream.
Retailers and manufacturers use them to provide additional information and bring products on the shelf to life, said Casey Chroust, executive vice president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, whose members include most of the nation's largest mass retailers, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., Best Buy Co Inc., Meijer Inc., Home Depot Inc., and Lowe's Cos. Inc.
QR codes are like barcodes but convey far more information and can be scanned by consumers with smart phones and tablet computers. Accessing a code takes the user to a Web page, a video, or a call. The Blade began using QR codes in May to enhance its newspaper for movie previews, for local restaurant menus, and more.
The technology has been available for years, but only recently was embraced by U.S. retailers.
The Los Angeles Times said scans of the codes had risen to 2 million a month, nearly double the rate last year and up from 80,000 a month in 2009.
One of the biggest users, Best Buy, began using the codes in 2010. More retailers have been joining ranks of users monthly, with Wal-Mart adopting QR codes at the end of May.
Home Depot began using the codes this year on garden plants and patio sets and in some advertising and marketing promotions. Spokesman Jennifer King said the home-improvement retailer plans to expand their use as it learns how customers use the codes and what types of information they want.
"We certainly see the benefits for our customers. For example, with plants, if you don't know that much about planting, a code will tell you how you plant [a flower], whether it needs sun and water, what to plant next to it," Ms. King said.
In the future, a QR code could allow a customer to schedule an appointment with a kitchen designer, or provide a video on how to use a tool, she added.
To read a QR requires a smart phone or a tablet. In 2010, Forrester research reported that 17 percent of U.S. adults used smart phones.
However, the research firm also said only about 1 percent of all U.S. mobile phone owners and 5 percent of smart-phone owners have used QR codes.
But Mr. Chroust predicts the use of codes will grow quickly because they "allow customers access to information in a self-service environment. You're no longer dependent on a sign or a sales associate to provide information on the item you want to purchase," he said.
Jon Modene, a broker with Re/Max Masters real estate in Perrysburg, said he has put QR codes on printed materials, but they are wasted on "For sale" signs and on real estate Web sites.
"I laugh when I see them on signs, but they're good for special reports and flyers," he said.
"For us, if you can already get on the Internet, it's worthless. And if you're at the house, it's worthless because, well, you're at the house," he said.
But direct mail is a good use for QR codes because a quick scan can call up a Web page on a specific house.
"It would take you to the site for that property instead of my main Web page, or it would take you to the video of that house," he said.