When smartphones evolved to the point where they could scan quick response codes, many produce companies were among early adopters of the two dimensional codes.

Now, four years into the trend, some in the industry are abandoning the black and white squares. Others, including HarvestMark founder Elliot Grant, say reports of the death of QR codes are like the proverbial premature obituary for Mark Twain — greatly exaggerated.

Would Mark Twain have scanned a QR code?Not comfortable with either of those views, Columbia Marketing International, Wenatchee, Wash., decided to dig for data.

“We’re a little surprised with the initial data,” said Steve Lutz, vice president of Wenatchee, Wash.-based CMI. “Conventional wisdom is that QR codes are dead, but we are still getting a lot of traffic. The problem is we don’t know where the scans are being done, at home or in the store.”

Lutz said a test involving CMI’s Ambrosia apples in pouch bags should reveal what QR codes have done for the company lately.

“The basic motive is to understand how consumers find their way to our website,” Lutz said. “We’re using this test to document what catches shoppers’ attention and identify the methods used to connect to digital offers.”

The test includes new package designs and a consumer contest with “premium kitchen gadgets” as a motivator. Consumers can enter by scanning QR codes on the Ambrosia bags or visiting the CMI website.

Seventy-five days into the test, 46% of contest entries were from the QR codes and 54% were from the company’s Web address. The test is scheduled to conclude at the end of the Ambrosia import season.

Meanwhile, onion company strips QR codes from packages

Would Mark Twain have scanned a QR code?As CMI assesses its QR codes, sweet onion grower-shipper Shuman Produce Inc., Reidsville, Ga., is killing the codes on its packaging.

Adam Brady, marketing coordinator for Shuman, said after reviewing research studies and scans of its codes, the company decided to phase them out. The company began using QR codes in spring 2011.

“Year to year, we’ve seen the number of interactions decline by nearly 80% over the last four years,” Brady said.

“I still think the mechanism itself is effective. Unfortunately, they’re now seen as too cumbersome to use or misunderstood by consumers who are still unaware of how they function.”

Shuman Produce is replacing QR codes on its packaging with its Web address, Brady said. The Shuman website has been mobile-optimized so it automatically reformats when consumers access it with mobile devices.

Codes’ beauty in the eye of millennials, marketers

Despite research to the contrary, the founder and chief technology officer for HarvestMark said consumer response to QR codes is improving, especially for those companies that are keeping up with technology.

“The mobile experience behind QR codes is getting better as marketers understand mobile optimization and deliver content that’s actually useful, and time- and location-specific, not just brochure-ware,” said HarvestMark’s Elliot Grant.

Grant said one snag — the need to download an app before a smartphone could read a QR code — is disappearing as new generations of phones have pre-installed code readers. Improved access to Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity in general is also helping, he said.

“That’s not to say there will never be a better solution,” Grant said. “But right now, QR is the easiest way to get to a new URL with a smart phone.”

Grant also dismisses the “myth” that no one scans QR codes any more.

“Scan rates are about 0.1% — one scan for every 1,000 labels on the shelf — and it really depends on the product and call to action. That’s exactly the click through rate on a Web banner ad,” Grant said.

The influence of millennials is also on the side of QR codes, said Anthony Totta, vice chairman of the produce consulting firm FreshXperts. He said people younger than 45 are smartphone shoppers and he advises produce companies on everything.

“We are just beginning to see how many ways of using QR codes are effective,” Totta said. “We wholeheartedly support and encourage their use and continue to integrate them into ads, packaging labels, business cards, recipe cards and other marketing materials.”

The codes won’t be showing up in one place, though. The Washington Post reported last year that the advisory board for Arlington National Cemetery voted against allowing QR codes on headstones in the graveyard.