Data Dive: QR Codes

July 8, 2013

This article is included in these additional categories:

African-American | Boomers & Older | Digital | Europe & Middle East | Magazines | Men | Mobile Phone | Youth & Gen X

comScore-Smartphone-Ownership-QR-Code-Scanning-Trends-Jul2011-May2013A lot has been written and said about QR codes. Many pronounce them dead – others see a positive future for them. Often these opinions are agenda-driven. This article takes an agnostic look at recent research touching on QR codes, highlighting key statistics and identifying trends where they can reasonably be deduced, from both the marketer and consumer sides of the equation.

Looking first at some positive projections, a recent study sponsored by the Mobile Marketing Association and mLightenment suggests that spending on mobile recognition, of which QR codes are a primary component, ought to almost double this year to reach $164 million, before continuing to grow strongly, reaching $364 million in spending by 2015.

That estimate is likely based in some part on rosy reports of increased scanning levels. Just recently, ScanLife said it processed 18 million scans via its ScanBuy application in Q1 2013. That’s up from 13 million scans in Q1 2012, which in itself was up 157% over Q1 2011.

But, a 38% year-over-year rise in scans between Q1 2012 and Q1 2013, while healthy, isn’t quite as dramatic as the preceding 157% jump. And while ScanLife is just one resource (albeit a leading one) and its figures can’t necessarily be applied to the industry as a whole, there’s reason to think that the increase in scans year-over-year could be more the result of continued smartphone penetration than a rise in QR code use among smartphone owners. Indeed, recent data from comScore shows that smartphone penetration in the US (as a percentage of the mobile market) grew by 30% between Q1 2012 and Q1 2013, which suggests that the 38% increase in scans is not very dramatic.

Another way to look at it is to compare smartphone ownership against the number of scanners. Using data provided by comScore, the below interactive chart details:

  • the number of mobile subscribers who scanned a QR or bar code between the 3-month average ending in July 2011 and the 3-month average in May 2013; and
  • the number of smartphone owners in the US in that time period.

Chart: US Smartphone Ownership and QR Code Scanning Trends Description: comScore-US-Smartphone-Ownership-QR-Code-Scanning-Trends-Jul-2011-May-2013Tags: Author: MarketingChartscharts powered by iCharts

The results are quite striking – the number of mobile subscribers scanning codes has virtually stalled even as the number of smartphone owners has increased. That implies that there is an ever-shrinking proportion of mobile owners who have scanned a code.

How does that result measure up with Scanbuy’s increased scanning volume? The most likely explanations are either that existing QR code scanners are scanning more actively, or that Scanbuy is securing a greater market share over time.

The comScore data looks at monthly totals – but what about other estimates, such as the proportion of mobile owners who are aware of QR codes, or who have ever scanned one?

Key statistics about QR code usage released this year follow. Links (where available) to the research or its coverage, along with the date of its release, are also provided.


  • A recent estimate of consumer usage: 21% of American smartphone owners say they have ever scanned a QR code, with 2% doing so at least once a day, and the remaining 19% doing so less frequently. (Edison Research and Arbitron, 4/2/13)
  • A more bullish estimate: 24% of American smartphone users claim to have scanned a barcode or QR code in the past 30 days (during Q2 2012), behind only China (30%) and Korea (38%) among the 9 countries tracked. (Nielsen, 2/1/13)
  • An even more bullish estimate: 83% of North American consumers are aware of QR codes, and 47% of those have ever used their mobile device to scan one. Among those who have scanned a code, almost half did so from a magazine (49.8%), in-store sign (49.3%), or packaging while shopping (49.2%), while 17.7% did so from a newspaper and 8.7% from a transit ad. (BrandSpark International, 1/24/13)
  • Regular in-store use: 9.4% of smartphone and tablet owners report regularly scanning a QR code to get more information about a product while shopping in a store, and that figure rises to 12.8% among black adults. Smartphone and tablet owners are less likely to scan QR codes regularly, though, than to conduct a number of other in-store activities such as checking in for a discount (13.3%) and requesting a price match (10.9%). (Prosper Insights; 3/6/13)
  • Hispanic women not so enamored: While Hispanics are early adopters in various mobile shopping behaviors, they are less likely than the general market to scan a barcode or receive more information via a QR code. Among Hispanics, men are 37% more likely than women to say they’re willing to interact with a retailer or brand via scanned codes. (The Integer Group and M/A/R/C Research; 5/1/13)
  • Scanners getting older: 57% of mobile barcode scanners in Q1 were aged 35 and older, up from 41% a year earlier. The 45-54 and 55+ groups represent rapidly growing proportions of scanners. Males continue to be the dominant scanners, at 65% share in Q1. (ScanBuy, 4/25/13)
  • What about Europeans? 11% of urban European adults 18-54 report having scanned a QR/barcode in response to an out-of-home ad in 2012, up from 5% in 2011. (CBS Outdoor; 3/22/13) In the UK, 10.8% of smartphone users report scanning QR/bar codes with their mobile phones, a figure that rises to 14.5% among 18-24-year-olds smartphone users. (comScore, 2/14/13)
  • Remote ordering is rare: When purchasing online or via mobile device, just 4% of global consumers say remote QR code ordering has an influence on their decision. (Accenture, 4/15/13)
  • Influence on purchases is low: Asked about their most recent purchase or transaction across a series of categories, only 1-12% (OTC drugs on the low side, electronics on the high end) of respondents indicated having used QR codes to get information about a purchase, with 3-15% (household appliances on the low end, baby care equipment on the high end) more saying they would use them in the future. On average, only about 5% of respondents reported using QR codes to inform their most recent purchase, with future interest also relatively low. (Radius Global, 5/6/13)

Trends/Takeaways: On the basis of the data contained above, one can reasonably say that somewhere in the realm of 1 in 5 smartphone users have scanned a QR or barcode on their device. (Whether or not that constitutes high or low adoption is in the eye of the beholder, although it does appear to trail other mobile commerce activities. Still, it’s difficult to make the case that adoption is booming – this study released in early 2012 found about 1 in 5 saying they’d scanned a code. And the comScore data certainly seems to suggest that the number of scanners has reached some sort of plateau.)

In terms of scanners’ demographics, it seems that QR code use is higher than average among African-Americans, but lower among Hispanics. QR code scanning also seems to be trending towards a more even age distribution, while remaining mostly the province of men.


  • Retailers see some impact: 18% of retailers believe that the ability to scan QR codes, compare products and pricing is having a significant impact on their business. That’s more than can say the same about mobile payments (16%) and showrooming (12%) as influences, but less than others such as social media (71%) and the use of in-store mobile technology by store associates. (KPMG, 6/7/13)
  • Digital marketers find them effective: Asked how effective a range of mobile tactics are for increasing conversion rates, 34% of digital marketers said that advertising promotions, bar-coded coupons and QR codes are “very effective,” while another 49% called them “somewhat effective.” These tactics were seen as one of the most effective, above social sharing, but below check-in rewards. (Adobe, 4/25/13) In a similar vein, marketers responding to a separate study were fairly enthusiastic about the effectiveness of QR codes as a mobile marketing tactic, with 29% rating them very effective, and another 66% effective. (Experian, 4/2/13) And QR codes in magazines have been said to deliver strong response and engagement rates.
  • So how many use them? 45% of global marketers plan to use QR codes this year, down slightly from 48% last year. Still, QR codes are second only to mobile applications (47%) in planned use this year, and ahead of mobile search marketing (39%) and mobile-optimized emails (36%). (Econsultancy, 2/5/13)
  • Another viewpoint? 60.5% of marketers have adopted scannable QR codes or tags as a mobile marketing tactic, but that appears to be a drop-off from 68% last year. Among the 42.8% who said they ran a QR code campaign in the past year, the primary reasons given were to: drive traffic to their website (61.1%); bridge an offline campaign to online (54.4%); and drive visitors to a specific landing page (44.2%). (Chief Marketer, 6/27/13)
  • And one more? 42.4% of multi-channel merchants are using QR codes this year, down slightly from 45.8% last year, with catalogs the main distribution source (59.4%). (Multichannel Merchant, 6/14/2013)
  • QR codes lose share in top magazines: While the number of mobile activations in top magazines is rising quickly, QR codes appear to be losing their share. Whereas QR codes comprised up to 85% of magazine action codes in April and June of 2012, they finished the year at 68% share. (Nellymoser, 4/10/13)

Trends/Takeaways: The marketer view on QR codes is somewhat at odds with the consumer statistics. Whereas relatively few consumers say they’re actively scanning QR codes, marketers are finding them to be quite an effective mobile marketing tactic. Even so, there is some evidence that marketer interest in QR codes is falling off, and currently, adoption of QR/barcode campaigns by marketers is probably in the vicinity of about 40%.

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