From gimmick to Covid essential: how the bar was raised for QR codes
Pubs and restaurants are relying on the tech to curb customers’ coronavirus risk, writes Matthew Field
They have been plastered across pub bars and restaurant tables seemingly overnight. Everywhere you look, punters are pointing their smartphone cameras at small black and white squares in an attempt to access menus and register their details.
These QR (quick response) codes – once derided as a marketing gimmick – have made a triumphant comeback in post-lockdown Britain as businesses attempt to come up with ways to interact with customers at a distance.
But why has this decades-old technology become such an integral part of the UK’s recovery?
The bar code, which contains around 3Kb of data, can be scanned with a smartphone camera and used to look up links, videos or even augmented reality animations.
Invented in 1994 in Japan by Masahiro Hara to track vehicle parts, the codes evolved in the 2000s to be used alongside smartphones to scan real-world objects. But the codes were slow to take off. A 2012 study found only around 8pc of consumers in the US knew how to use them.
Their impact was further undermined after the marketing industry began adopting them – often with ridiculous results.
A blog called WTF QR Codes detailed the most absurd efforts by companies to shoe-horn the codes into their campaigns. For instance, in 2015, Daniel Korell scanned one of the black and white squares on the back of a Heinz bottle only to land on a page full of porn videos.
An advert on New York’s metro included a code positioned so the only way a user might scan it would be to climb on to the electrified tracks.
There was even the world’s largest QR code, mowed into a cornfield in Alberta and measuring more than 300,000 sq ft. Despite these gimmicks, Jason Vincent, chief executive of Aeguana, a company that makes touchscreen terminals for retailers, believes QR codes have made a comeback. “We’re confident this is no longer a fad,” he says.
A user can scan the code, which brings up a menu or shopping experience on their phone. Then they can browse and pay without having to touch the screen or go to a till. “You can go through the whole experience just through a code,” he says. Most noticeably, QR codes are being used as part of many test and trace set-ups in pubs and restaurants. They have even been carved into wooden tables or used to replace menus entirely, so a user can scan the code, bring up a menu and order, without having to interact with a waiter.
Ben Wood, an analyst at CCS Insight, says: “There is little doubt that QR codes are having a renaissance as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The desire to minimise infection risk is making the technology a much more commonplace occurrence.”
Major names now using the responsive tools for test and trace registration in the UK include Starbucks and Pret a Manger.
For test and trace, the benefit is that a person does not have to use a physical address book, meaning their data is more secure, or handle a communal pen and guest book.
While they are only just taking off in the West, QR codes have already started seeing success in payments in Asia. In China, the codes have been hugely popular for years. Tencent, the
Chinese technology giant, made scannable QR codes a quick and easy way for customers or friends to pay or send money using its popular WeChat app. Between January and May alone, Tencent said its QR codes were used 140 billion times in total, with £1 trillion of QR-driven payments.
Tencent’s main rival Alibaba also enables QR code payments through its apps. “The pandemic has accelerated the digitalisation processes within all areas of society, and the QR code economy is set to grow in tandem,” Tencent said.
Amid the coronavirus crisis, QR codes are being used in China as a way to verify people travelling. Billions of health codes have been exchanged as users confirm they have not come from a coronavirus hot zone. Carrying a code from a province with a high coronavirus risk can see people denied the right to travel or enter hospitality venues or public transport.
Similar codes have even been used in Greece for British tourists arriving, with the threat of fines if travellers lack the right codes. It took social media companies, such as Snapchat, to reintroduce QR codes to millennials and Generation Z to boost their popularity in the West.
QR codes have been given a further boost as they become easier to use. Until 2017, most phones required a special QR code-reading app to scan a code and access its link. Such a barrier made it difficult for many less techsavvy users to adopt the codes.
Now, Apple is said to be preparing to add quick response code-scanning to its Apple Pay app, allowing users to simply scan a code and pay instantly using their phones, similar to how WeChat offers payments in China.
Prask Sutton, chief executive of Wi5, which provides payment services including QR payments, says the codes have gone from a nice add-on for advertisers to something people will see throughout their daily lives. And they will need to learn how to use them. “The difference is now there is a huge impetus to use them,” he says. “‘Scan this QR code for more information’ was a nice-to-have. Now, they are integral to ordering a coffee.”
The Hard Rock Cafe is among the venues adopting QR codes to offer digital menus