DECODING CONSUMER PATTERNS

Byline: Paul Braunstein

NEW YORK — Since 1974, when the first item was scanned at an Ohio supermarket, Americans have developed a love-hate relationship with bar codes.
Proponents claim that bar codes have greatly accelerated the retail checkout process, while detractors worry that the mysterious stripes can be used to surreptitiously overcharge consumers. Some have even lobbied state legislatures to mandate that bar-coded items retain their printed price tag to ensure fair play.
Enter the Qoder, a new scanning device that may finally help consumers master the enigmatic bar code. Inventors of the LED scanner, scheduled for deployment at the end of October, hope that the new device will give consumers detailed product information that will inform buying decisions, while also providing retailers with focus group-style data on consumer shopping patterns — without violating consumer privacy rights.
The brainchild behind this demystification of bar codes is Qode, a Fort Lauderdale-based technology firm that has been developing the Qoder, or mini-scanner, since 1998. “It’s a sexy, portable device that attaches to a keychain and enables shoppers to work up a shopping list as they walk through the store,” said Mike Miller, chief executive officer of Qode. Consumers scan store items and then upload the scanned data to their home computer. “The Qoder provides a wealth of information, beyond just the item description and price,” said Miller. “In the case of apparel, the Qoder will list available sizes, alternate colors, product reviews, prices, availability and payment options.”
Because the Qoder is easy to use and upload, Miller described it as “grandmother-enabled.” The scanner attaches to a docking station lodged between the keyboard and computer, and the software intuitively detects the user’s Internet connection and takes the prospective shopper to a personal Web site where all the accumulated data can be digested.
“If the UPC defines the product and gives it a unique identifying number, the Qoder gives the product its own DNA,” said Miller. But if consumers are learning more about products through the device, what are retailers learning about consumers? “The Qoder is completely anonymous and privacy-protected,” insisted Miller. “Users create a fake name and password, and access the scanned information at an independent, personalized home page hosted by Qode.” Retailers can access the Qode database to gain information on consumer buying patterns, but can’t get the identity of individual users. Retailers will have the option of sending discount e-mail vouchers to Qode, which will then selectively route the offerings to individual Qode users’ home pages.
Qode will be distributed by the companies that license the technology. Currently, several thousand sampler units have been sent out free of charge, but Miller will begin selling the Qoder at the Qode Web site (qode.com) for $39.95, beginning Oct. 31. “We expect upward of 50 million users by year’s end,” announced Miller, who has already inked a partnership agreement with Yellow Pages to use Qode’s 100-million-product database as a search engine. Miller expects the Qoder to have particular applicability to the apparel and accessories market.
Bar codes in general have become a hot cultural symbol recently; the heroine of the James Cameron sci-fi TV series “Dark Angel” has a bar code tattooed on her neck, and one of Manhattan’s hottest new watering holes is called Bar Code. Miller’s interest is more in the Qoder, which he swears can be a consumer’s best friend. “Our motto is ‘scan your way to savings’,” he said.

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