Gap’s Barcode Member Drive: Connecting physical stores and online services

In the past few months, we’ve been exploring the relationship between physical stores and online services. So last week, I was delighted to discover a novel use for QR codes while visiting the Gap store during a membership drive.

It goes like this:

  1. Sign up through their mobile website.
  2. Download a QR code onto your phone.
  3. Scan the QR code reader beside the register with your phone.
  4. Receive a discount.

I’ve seen many instances where printed QR codes are offered as convenient access to a website URL, but have never seen a downloaded QR code used for service authentication.

The store clerks informed me that if you register in-store during the drive, you receive 15% off the purchase price. They instructed me to visit the website from my mobile phone to register.

“It takes about fifteen minutes.”

Fifteen minutes?!

I looked up to see customers sprawled out on benches near the dressing room, earnestly trying to register. Their pained expressions revealed a struggle I’d soon understand upon accessing the site myself.

The sign up form had way too many fields. Personal information like address and even frequency of visit is acceptable but this long list of questions included things like anniversary dates and favorite colors. Worse yet, the over-strict formatting restrictions resulted in multiple errors, slowing me down further.

Halfway through, I was ready to give up, but ultimately found it difficult to admit defeat to the barely-present, yet stubbornly human store clerk. Besides, 15% is 15%! So I finally finished answering and downloaded the QR code. With so little thought put into reducing friction through common sense usability practices, the sign up process left much to complain about.

Putting that aside, the new membership system has several points worth noting:


Compared with a loyalty card: Since a QR code places no physical burden on customers, the chance that they’ll carry it increases. While it’s common for customers to forget their loyalty card at home, but it isn’t often that one forgets their mobile.

Compared with paper coupons: Many coupons offered through online services require printed out copies, but this takes a lot of time and effort. (I pretty much only bother with paper coupons when I’m organizing a drinking party.)

Information Push

Since it’s easy to download new QR codes via links in email newsletters, there is significant incentive for users to subscribe and actually read it, making it easy to tie in an immediate action. This is just one of the many emerging ways email newsletters are becoming effective sales promotion channels.

Information Pull

Information can be embedded in a QR code - purchase histories, member information, store location information, etc. If you consider the quantity and quality of data that can be obtained via a QR code, loyalty cards, which require about the same amount of work in the store, start to look weak in comparison.

Costs of Change

QR codes make it easier to make adjustments and customizations. Theoretically, retailers could easily adjust communication and incentives midway through a poorly performing campaign, even testing such tweaks on small geographic or demographic slices of their membership.


With traditional coupons, store staff are responsible for “error handling” associated with the many expiry dates and restrictions. They receive the scrap of paper from the customer, read the text, validate the terms, and agree to the reward.

However, with QR codes, all the operation has been taught to the system and standardized in a single digital format, likely reducing the need for ongoing staff training. If the QR code can’t be used for some reason, the cause of the error will likely be displayed on the POS system.

Although I am discussing the relationship between stores and online services, the various new possibilities created when a user’s mobile phone and QR codes become actors are extremely interesting.

This post is a translation of GAPメンバーシップから見た店舗とオンライン・サービスの関係, originally published in Japanese on Tomomi’s personal site.

November 3, 2010