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Cynthia Clark | March 8, 2012

Using QR Codes to Tell a Product's Story

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Have you ever walked into a second-hand store, picked up an item, and wondered where it's been before and if there's an interesting story behind it? Britain-based charity Oxfam is using technology to tell the story of the second-hand items sold in some of its stores.

Using QR codes, Oxfam is creating a link between a product's previous owner and its retail shoppers in an attempt to make the shopping experience more interesting and to sell more donated products.

The concept is simple and shows how even charities can tap into technology to create a personalized experience around their products, igniting interest and improving sales. Oxfam has developed an iPhone app, called Shelflife, which allows a person donating an item to immortalize its story. This way, iPhone owners visiting Oxfam stores can scan a QR code attached to an item and read what the previous owner has written, raising the curtain on whether the item was an unwanted gift or a well-loved product that was simply outgrown. For example, Joe Bullock, 7, donated Herburt, a furry case shaped as a dog in which he used to store his pajamas. In his letter to Oxfam, which was translated into a QR code, Joe says he got a new "pajama Ted for Christmas and Herburt wanted to go and live with a new [family]."

According to a BBC article, the technology for Shelflife was originally developed for the Tales of Things and Electronic Memory (Totem) project, the work of five UK universities to build a database of items that use technology to tell their story.

It's not only personal stories that are immortalized through the QR technology. A vintage nutcracker tells you that wooden nutcrackers in the form of soldiers have been around since the 15th century. And a stuffed "lost puppy" pulls at heartstrings as he begs for a new home.

Social media is also a component in the experience. Every item has its own Twitter handle and whenever its tag is scanned or new information entered, it automatically sends a tweet to its followers, keeping the story alive. As Andrew Hudson-Smith, the director of the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London, told the BBC, "second-hand goods are essentially meaningless, but when they are tagged we give them meaning."

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