Anyone remember QR codes? Those boxy, square-and-dot-filled designs that appeared back around 2011 when smartphones were first gaining traction. At the time these little squares virtually appeared everywhere – but then they quietly disappeared – until now.

The Story of the Humble QR Code
The 2D QR barcode or “Quick Response” codes were invented by Masahiro Hara in 1994 for Japan’s automotive industry to track vehicles during manufacturing. Up until then, the traditional line bar code was used – a code that we are all well accustomed to seeing every day on items such as our grocery shopping, books, clothing labels etc. While useful, the problem with line barcodes is that they can only hold around 20 alphanumeric characters, whereas the QR code, can store information both horizontally and vertically – allowing for combinations of up to 7,000 characters, and could be accessed quickly. To you and me that might not make much of a difference, but for manufacturing industries the QR code contributed greatly to making management work efficient for a wide range of tasks from production to shipping to the issuing of transaction slips. With the ability to speed up processes and store a vast amount of information, the QR code was picked up and adopted by other industries that required quick access to their digital information. From food to pharmaceuticals it fast became an indispensable tool.

Marketers were the last to the table, picking up the QR code with the emergence of the smartphone. They were seen as an effective tool for driving offline-to-online interactions at scale. At the time, practically every advertisement included one. Every brand had found a way to integrate QR codes into their marketing material, regardless of whether there was a genuine use case for them. They were the “in” thing. But the codes were not adopted as readily as marketers had hoped. The codes were riddled with issues and were difficult to use. Users had to download a QR code reader app to their smartphones, open the app, scan the code and then, more often than not, users were redirected to website that weren’t optimized for smartphones making the whole situation worse –Not surprisingly, in the world of marketing the QR code didn’t quite achieve a widespread revolution and instead became another passing fad that had mostly fizzled out by the mid 2010’s.

2020 Year of The QR Code Renaissance
QR codes were dismissed as nothing more than a gimmick and there was no plausible reason for their return. However, with the onslaught of COVID, the QR code is having somewhat of a renaissance. COVID-19 has ushered in a plethora of rules and restrictions. The main ones being social distancing and contact tracing practices. CDC’s guidelines state that consumers should use contactless options whenever possible. Now, businesses big and small are looking for ways to offer customers a touch-free experience. That means cash and credit cards are out and touch-free payments are in. Menus are a haven for germs on a good day so in the era of COVID-19, paper menus are out and digital menus are in.

In our new no-touch reality the QR code is the perfect touch-free medium. They allow consumers to interact with the world around them while touching only their own smartphone. Not only that but QR code technology has advanced a lot from where it used to be. You can literally use the camera app on your phone to scan a QR code, you don’t need a separate app. So, for restaurateurs, using QR technology requires little to no contact with a traditional waiter, nor does the guest need to download an app to do it. Customers only have to scan a QR code at their table and from there can read the menu, order, and pay directly from their phones. No face-to-face ordering, no credit card-taking, no check signing. As most states begin phases of tentatively reopening, businesses are turning to QR code technology to deliver a dine-in experience that is as touch-free as possible. “We are really operating in the new world of COVID. We will not do menus anymore. We will use QR codes to reduce contact between servers and customers. Diners will find a QR on their table that will allow their device to pull up a menu, place and order items with their server and eventually pay their bill. It’s all part of keeping guest contact to a minimum but also making sure to maintain the experience diners expect.” Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

While the codes haven’t necessarily caught on everywhere, especially where the customer base skews older, the majority of consumers have been receptive to the codes. Offering an easy touchless dining option amid the coronavirus, Julie Zucker, CMO of Branded Strategic Hospitality said, “While people thought it was cool before … I think now it’s almost becoming a way of dining”.