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Using SQRL codes to bring the power of Big Data to Reverse Logistics

Using SQRL codes to bring the power of Big Data to Reverse Logistics

by Ron Lembke, Associate Professor, Supply Chain Management Marketing Area , University of Nevada

Reverse Logistics Magazine, Edition 79

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Last year, the RLA Standards Committee announced the release of the SQRL code (Standardized QR for Logistics) standard. SQRL codes have been approved by the ANSI standards body’s MH10 committee, which makes the RLA SQRL code an international standard. Within the existing MHI 10.8.2 standard, our SQRL codes are signified by the 12N Data Identifier, so the codes are officially referred to as 12N codes.

Benefits to Retailers, Customers, and Partners
12N codes can be very useful in many different ways in a B2B context, giving retail partners a simple and easy way to access information. Companies decide what information to share, choosing from the more than 150 Fields that have been created so far. Some B2B examples include:

Retail: providing supply chain partners with any potentially useful information about a product such as model number, serial number, lot code, hazmat, weight, etc.
Reverse Logistics: UPC, serial number, retailer name, required components

Repair/Refurbishing: diagnostic test results, tests run, components repaired/actions taken

Recycling/Disposal: hazardous materials, precious metals content
In a B2C context, 12N codes can help customers access product information to improve their satisfaction with the product, or simplify the process of getting help.

Pre-Sale support: product specifications (what it can and can’t do), required accessories

Warranty registration: simplified registration, increased registration rates

After-Sale support: easy access to manuals, quick start sheets, wiring diagrams, setup guides, troubleshooting, FAQs, 800 numbers, chat support, etc.

Returns: which retailer purchased from, which accessories came with it, returns period length

End of life: where to drop off product, safe for residential garbage?, etc.

Not Just for QR Codes
12N codes allow companies to store as much information as they want to in a very small space. The data can be stored in a QR code, a Data Matrix 2D barcode, RFID, or any other storage format. Although the 12N technology can be used with any data storage technology, we will use QR codes as an example here.

For the Retail use case, the 12N code might be placed on the packaging of the product, or in an out-of-the-way location on a product (where multiple other labels already exist), like the back of a TV or the underside of a laptop. For Repair and Refurbishing activities, a separate QR code may be placed on the inside of the device, in a place that will only be seen by professional technicians, much like the oil change stickers that used to be placed on the ends of car doors.

Internet URL Shortening
In any storage format, space at a premium, and with QR codes (or any other optical storage medium), the more characters to be stored, the larger the code has to physically be printed.
In order to share information with consumers, one of the most likely uses for 12N codes will be to give the customers links allowing them to do many things, including:

• download the manufacturer’s app,
• register the product,
• buy accessories,
• buy an extended warranty or service contract,
• download the manual,
• download quick start sheets,
• read FAQ pages,
• ask questions and read responses in online discussion forums, and
• contact customer support (voice, chat, email, text).

To conserve space, web addresses (URLs) should be shortened whenever possible. URL shortening Websites such as,,, and others, allow companies to create significantly shorter URLs. For example, the URL for downloading a manual can easily extend to 100 characters or more. By using a URL shortening service, any URL can be shortened to a dozen or so characters.

URLs and Data Capture
In addition to saving space in the QR code, using a URL short codes provides a number of benefits. Most importantly, any time anyone, anywhere, clicks on a URL, the server that sends the information to the user has to know where to send the information. That means anytime anyone, anywhere, accesses the information stored in one of the URLs in a SQRL code, the server knows (and can store in a database) the following information:

• Date and time
• Exactly which short URL was clicked on (useful for when there are multiple short URLs leading to the same destination)
• The Operating System the device was using: Mac, PC, iOS, Android
• Country code
• IP address

From the IP address, if the device has accessed the internet over WiFi or a wired network, this can also provide:
• Internet service provider
• Location (latitude and longitude)

Every time a URL is clicked, all of this information can be stored easily on the server.

Smarter, Differentiated Short URLs
In theory, a company could create one Short URL for a particular product manual, and re-use that link every time they want to share that manual, for as long as the product is being produced. However, a much better idea is to create new Short URLs for that same manual all the time. This does not create multiple copies of the manual on a server; there is no change to the amount of data being stored. All that changes is that the server at the URL Shortening service now has more Short URLs that point back to that same manual.

Why would a company want to create multiple Short URLs for the same URL? Here is why: when a user clicks on a URL, all that the company knows is that the link was clicked (plus the information above). But there is no additional information available. The company just knows that the manual was downloaded, or that someone clicked on the “Live Chat” link, etc. But that is all we know, if we have re-used that same link over and over.

By contrast, consider the possibility of creating differentiated Short Codes on the basis of:
• Product line
• Model
• Time: create a new Short Code, say, every month
• Geography: create a different one for every country or region the product is to be marketed in
• Retail partner: create a different one for every retailer or channel the products are sold through: BestBuy, Target, Walmart, Amazon, etc.
• Placement: outside of the packaging, or on the product itself
• Production facility

So, for example, for each product, every month, the company would create a new Short Code for the manual (and the quick-start sheet, and the web chat service, and any other links on the SQRL code, etc.). But each month there would also be a new Short Code for every retail partner, every geographical destination, every production facility, and one for the box and one for the product.

These differentiated short codes would add up quickly: if a company has 6 major retail partners, 5 geographical regions, 2 production facilities, and puts codes on the product and on the box (2), that could be as many as 6-5-2-2 = 120 short codes, per month or 1,440 short codes per year.

Why? Granularity of Data
Below, we will talk about the complexities of managing these differentiated short codes (which are really not that great). But first, even if the costs are not great, the question remains, why should a company do this?

If multiple Short Codes are created for this one product, based on these criteria, this gives us far more information every time someone clicks a link, without collecting any personal data.

For example, suppose a company has used these differentiated short codes. When someone clicks on a link, we know the country the product was intended for (and from their IP address, we know which country they are in), which reseller they purchased it through, and we know if they scanned a code on the outside of the packaging (which probably indicates they are still considering buying the product), or on the product itself, (which means that they already have purchased the product). Based on the short code, the response their request for information can be customized to better meet their needs.

By creating a new Short Code every, month (or week, etc.), we can know exactly when the customer’s product was produced. We don’t know when they bought it, but we know exactly when it was produced.

By making a different Short Code for each facility, we also can know where the product came from: was it from the lettuce processing facility that is subject to a recall? In that case, the system can route their chat request directly to the recall-assistance team.

Big Data: Where are our Customers?
If a company sells millions of units in a year, and if each customer clicked on only one link, this would generate millions of clicks. For every one of those clicks, we can know all of the information outlined above, and store that data in a database. In a short amount of time, a company can generate a massive amount of data. The trick, of course, is to figure out how to turn this into actionable information.

To start with, these URL shortcodes will allow us to see where our manuals are being downloaded, and when. This will allow companies to see, in almost real-time, where their products are being used and registered. Companies know, from PoS data, where the products are sold, but this does not tell the company where they are used. They know where the customers are who register their products, but only a small percentage of customers actually register their products. Now companies will be able to see where every customer is who uses any of the links.

This location data may be extremely useful for knowing where your customer base is, and where future opportunities may lie. By inferring demographic information about your users based on where they live, you can see who is buying your product (and based on the retailer information, you will know from whom), and you can see who is not buying your product, which may lead to insights and changes in marketing approaches.

With enough data, this can allow companies to get real-time feedback on their marketing efforts, as they see where registrations and downloads increase after different marketing efforts, and see which efforts have had different impacts with different demographic groups.

This location information will work globally as well as locally. Where have your products ended up? You may be surprised to discover that despite a lack of an official sales channel in South America, you have a substantial volume of products there, which might lead you to add service opportunities there, and add support for more languages.

Leveraging Big Data for Continuous Process Improvement
Forward logistics personnel (but probably not reverse logistics personnel) might be surprised to see how long products stay in circulation. Once these 12N shortcodes are in existence, every time someone clicks a link for years or decades, the servers will record the downloads. SQRL labels with short codes will allow companies to see how many of their old products are still being used, anywhere in the world, and you can study how those clicks are distributed geographically over time. Do they start out in the US, and then move overseas later in their lives?

By studying the download activity, a company can look at those manuals which are the most downloaded, and try to find ways to make the product more user friendly, or make the quick-start sheet easier to understand, so fewer customers will need to download the larger manual. Then, after those changes are made, the company look at the data to see if the situation has been improved.

It is important to note that the SQRL code cannot contain any personalized information, having been placed on the product before it was sent to the retailer, and was not built to order. However, in many cases, the exact location of the click can be determined. In that case, it is possible to ask further questions:
• If the location is a residential location, when someone clicked on the link to contact customer support, had someone at that same location already downloaded the manual?
• What other links had they clicked before contacting customer support?

Retailers can leverage this information as well:
• If the location is a retail location, are there more clicks or fewer clicks at that location than similar stores?
• If one location is generating more clicks, does staffing needs to be increased or staff better trained on the product?

Differentiating the Short Codes like this can help companies study to see if changes that were made to improve products have had the desired effect:
• Did the new manual help reduce NFF (No Fault Found) incidents?
• Did a retailer’s new effort help reduce NFF claims?
• Did better explanation on the packaging of the product requirements help reduce NFF claims?
• Did product redesign changes help?
• Did different placement of the QR codes result in more downloads?

End of Life Tracking
Finally, when a product reaches the end of its life, customers can, as mentioned above, use the SQRL code to find out how they can dispose of the item responsibly. When given the opportunity, many Americans prefer to responsibly dispose of their electronics and other products.

When products become tagged with SQRL codes, after they reach the end of their useful lives and arrive at an electronics recycling facility, the SQRL code can be again scanned. This will allow the recycling center to easily get the exact model number, which it can use against its databases to know exactly how to process the most hazardous components and to recover the most valuable components.

In addition, the recycling center can easily record the company, model, and serial number (if included in the SQRL code) of every product recycled, and share this information with the manufacturer. This easy ability to capture the serial number, when combined with registration data, can allow companies to know exactly which of their products are being responsibly disposed of, and in what quantities. Knowing the exact volumes of products being recycled, they can try to figure out how to increase the rates of products with lower recovery rates.

They can also compare this against product registration data, and see how long it took for it to ultimately arrive at the recycling facility. Comparing this information with data from authorized repair facilities, companies may be able to gain valuable insights into how to increase product quality and durability.

Dealing with the Complexities
In reality, the number of short codes for one SKU would probably be far smaller than the 1,440 number used as an example above. For example, not all retail partners would be represented in all geographical regions, or one facility might produce all units for one region, etc. But in any case, it could still be a very large number of different URL short codes. And keep in mind that this was for only one product, and that the example only created one Short Code per product, when multiple would probably be required. Multiply that by the number of SKUs the company wants to monitor URL usage of, and it can result in tens or possibly even hundreds of thousands of different Short Codes being generated per year, for one company.

Creating and managing all of these Short Codes sounds like it could be a daunting task. But in reality, the creation of the short codes can easily be automated by software. The storage needs for creating and storing short code are relatively small.

To leverage the power of Big Data, the company will also want to store in the database all of the attributes unique to that short code: product line, model, retail partner, location, date, and the purpose of the link: manual, chat page, etc.

After a few years, a large corporation could easily have a hundred thousand or more short codes in existence, and if they sell millions of units per year, they could very easily have millions of records from customers following the links.

Clearly, the data needs for this could become very large. Fortunately, in today’s cloud-based computing environment, data storage space is no longer a significant issue.

Working with the Innevation Center at the University of Nevada, Reno, a URL shortening service has been created called 12N.IO, which will allow companies to do exactly these things.
Dr. Ron Lembke
Associate Professor, Supply Chain Management Marketing Area Coordinator, Managerial Sciences Dept University of Nevada
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