World Reimagined

Here's Why You're Seeing QR Codes Everywhere

QR code
Credit: Fevziie / stock.adobe.com

Dining out in the midst of the pandemic looks different for a multitude of reasons. Tables are further apart. You’re eating outside way later in the year than ever before. And there are no menus—at least the paper kind. As more and more businesses begin to reopen, they’re looking to give customers an experience that’s as touch-free as possible. Being able to eat out with friends and family? Terrific. Passing around a germ-covered menu from one person to another? Not so much.

And that’s where the QR (quick response) code comes in. These black and white barcode-like squares allow a person to interact with the physical world around them without touching anything other than their smartphone. Just open a mobile device, point it at the code, and it translates that information into a link that leads to something readable. For restaurants, that would mean a PDF of the menu—and any other information the chef might want to share with diners. These QR codes are also showing up at retail stores, hospitals, sports arenas and anywhere else humans like to congregate. And that means these little black and white squares are having their moment in the sun.

Other businesses are finding QR codes quite useful right now. Both PayPal and Venmo recently introduced QR codes for mobile payments in the U.S. (something already quite popular in China; more on that in a minute). PayPal’s offering enables small businesses, even farmer’s markets, to use QR codes to facilitate contactless payments. In September, Uber Eats announced a new feature on the Uber app that allows in-restaurant diners to scan a QR code to order and pay for their meals all from their smartphone.

And pharmaceutical company Abbott just launched a free app that acts like a boarding pass of sorts, using a QR code to give people a way to show that they have tested negative for the coronavirus. Abbott’s rapid antigen test—which was recently granted emergency use authorization from the FDA—can pair with the company’s Navica app to show whether a person has tested negative. Chris Scoggins, senior vice president of rapid diagnostics at Abbott, says this can help venues and other businesses feel more confident as they reopen and increase the number of people they let gather in one place.

An improvement on barcodes

Of course, QR codes aren’t new. They’ve been around since the mid-1990s and were originally created as an improved version of the barcode commonly found on grocery items. Since barcodes could only hold 20 alphabetic characters, there was a need for something that could handle more information and still be read quickly.

The problem was the fact that QR codes—and their original purpose—never really caught on with consumers in the U.S. Up until the pandemic made touching things out in the world a scary proposition, folks were fine handling paper menus or paying for purchases with a credit or debit card.

Covid-19 has upended all that and has also significantly changed consumer preferences across the board. According to a recent report commissioned by PYMNTS.com, a payments and commerce platform, some 57% of consumers say they now select merchants partly based on the payments options offered. The report also found that QR codes are quickly becoming an increasingly important item not only for consumers, but also for merchants looking to improve customers’ loyalty. A QR code lets retailers offer contactless payments while at the same time provides shoppers with much more information than could ever be delivered in an ad.

Not surprisingly, markets outside the U.S. were faster to embrace technologies using QR codes, including those for non-cash payment options. Millions of shoppers daily are now using China’s WeChat Pay and Alipay systems—both of which use QR codes. The government of Singapore is even using QR codes in SafeEntry, a national digital check-in system to help facilitate contact tracing of Covid-19 and to identify Covid-19 clusters.

Even as we move past the pandemic, there are those who feel that QR codes are finally living up to their initial hype—and are here to stay. Jonah Miller is the owner of the restaurant Huertas in the East Village in New York City. He recently wrote a piece that argues that paper menus shouldn’t make a comeback because they’re an environmental waste. They also don’t capture in real-time what’s available to diners on any given night because items run out. A digital menu with a QR code can be updated instantly to let diners know what’s actually available.

For now, QR codes are allowing people to shop, eat, and pay with an increased sense of safety. That surely wasn’t the intent 25 years ago when they debuted, but it’s proving that QR codes just might be a technology that was way ahead of its time.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Susan Caminiti

Susan is a writer and senior editor whose work covers a wide range of business and social topics including corporate profiles, personal investing, entrepreneurship, health and wellness, work/life issues, and wealth management for both editorial and corporate clients. She is a former staff writer for Fortune magazine and her work appears in Fortune, Fortune.com, CNBC.com and in a variety of other print magazines.

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