How did QR codes go from DOA to killer app?

Photo: @WR36 via Twenty20
Jan 06, 2021
Matthew Stern

About a decade ago QR codes were looking like a hot new technology, popping up on billboards throughout the U.S. and enticing smartphone users to scan. But without a pressing use case and with minimal customer adoption, within a few years of that they became something closer to a running joke.

In the past few years, brands have begun taking another look at QR codes and some experts are now adding them to the list of technologies that the novel coronavirus pandemic has helped turn into a part of daily life.

Contactless payment, pulling up digital menus, self-serve ordering, touchless shopping and contact-free returns are but a few of the pandemic-era uses for QR codes that Ad Exchanger senior editor Allison Schiff cited in an article from late 2020.

The technology has been leveraged by businesses of all sizes, too. Small companies have been using the technology with pop-ups to let customers arrange delivery or pickup for products not available on hand. Big chains like CVS have begun allowing the use of QR codes for payment.

In addition to the pandemic placing a premium on fast, touch-free interactions, adoption has also been bolstered by native QR-code scanning capabilities in both Apple and Android phones, so consumers no longer need install a separate app to scan.

Consumers are apparently aware of the resurgence — 46 percent of those polled in a Statista study agreed that they had noticed a spike in the use of technology in the U.S. and U.K. since March.

At least one of the most talked about retail innovations of late 2020 had a QR code attached. Walmart’s partnership with FedEx for free at-home returns pickups allows customers to either print out a return shipping label or generate a QR code and drop off the package at a FedEx location.

While QR codes may finally be seeing a comeback stateside, in Asia they never fell out of favor. QR codes are central to the operations of checkout-free grocers like China’s Bingobox, which launched in 2016.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see QR codes having compelling enough use cases to remain popular in the long term? How should retailers and brands think about leveraging QR codes if they are not already?

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"QR codes did not change, we did. Or more specifically, the world around the QR code changed drastically."

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22 Comments on "How did QR codes go from DOA to killer app?"

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Bob Phibbs

You can pack so much into a QR code it’s no wonder China has never looked back. It is the only way really to pack in options, resources, and capture users in the wild.

Michael La Kier

QR codes did not change, we did. Or more specifically, the world around the QR code changed drastically. A few factors led to “killer app” status:

  • The ability for mobile phone cameras to seamlessly read QR codes;
  • Faster devices and networks to go from code to web;
  • Better consumer understanding of the technology
  • Desire for a more touchless world due to COVID-19
  • Broader usage across industries.

All true. I would add that businesses have learned to use QR codes properly. No more slapping a code in the corner of an ad and hoping for the best.

Successful uses have a clear call to action:

  • scan this to pay;
  • scan this to see the menu and order;
  • scan this to connect to the wifi;
  • etc.
Lee Peterson

Remember the old mantra, “high tech, high touch”? Well, we just reached that equilibrium. Oh, and also, our phones now read them without downloading something. That helps, duh. It’s a great technology, always has been, just needed to be easier, more familiar and, like it is now, ubiquitous. You know, consumer friendly. Duh 2.0.

David Naumann

Going from not using a QR code for more than a year to now using them on a regular basis, I have experienced the resurgence of QR codes first-hand. Retailers and restaurateurs have found new ways to use QR codes to make processes easier and contactless for consumers and it has extended the life of QR codes for the foreseeable future – until something better comes along.

Carol Spieckerman

QR codes are particularly relevant during COVID-19 as shoppers seek more information on products and “how-to” content. The role that QR codes play in facilitating returns and clearing up app scanning/QR reading confusion have removed additional friction points and eased adoption. QR codes offer tremendous flexibility which should keep the momentum going even when COVID-19 winds down.

Scott Norris

For my company’s latest release of family-friendly card games, we added QR codes to the item packaging and countertop merchandisers that pop up video trailers and instructions when scanned. (I got to do some of the voiceover work, too 🙂 .) The toy stores and game merchants appreciate the extra selling assistance.

Carol Spieckerman

That is so cool, Scott. Great way to increase relevance with retailers (and shoppers)!

Patricia Vekich Waldron

QR codes have moved from a novelty to a valuable tech for customers to get information and conduct transactions.

Lisa Goller

Yes, QR codes will grow in retail popularity this decade because of their desirable efficiency, insights and accessibility.

QR codes allow fast mobile pay. Consumers can access data insights beyond what’s on the product label or landing page, like country of origin and allergens. Retailers and brands can use QR codes to gain insights on individual consumers and personalize online-to-offline marketing promotions. The tech makes omnichannel service more accessible, allowing smaller companies to afford to stay competitive as retail moves online.

Gene Detroyer

If you want to understand the future of QR codes, just look at China. Not only is it a retail tool, but every person who is on line has their own personal QR code. If you want to share a contact, your phone scans their QR code or visa versa. If you want to pay for an item, your QR code gets scanned. If you go to a grocery store and want to find out about about a product, including a fresh product, you scan the QR code. You buy some fish, scan the QR code and it will tell you when and where it was caught. I find it hard to imagine that today’s more grocers are even thinking about this.

I even have my own personal QR code with my picture right in the middle. Maybe most important regarding the future of QR is my grand children reference and use them all the time.

Gary Sankary

Great example of a technology that was a bit ahead of its time. It needed consumer devices to evolve to the point where the interaction with the QR code is seamless. That’s here now — personal devices can read the codes and go to the URL without the need for an app.

The other factor driving adoption is that we’ve also learned a lot about where these codes are the most useful. Flashing a phone at a billboard while driving, not so much. On a shelf label or item packaging, very helpful. I expect to see more innovation in this space. There’s opportunity to create engaging experiences in the store; get assistance, recruit loyalty membership, provide a vehicle for instant feedback. There’s so much that can be done with technology.

Dave Bruno

The resurgence of the QR code is a modern example verifying the wisdom of the old adage, “Find a need and fill it.” They are easy, convenient, fast, and extremely flexible to suit an almost limitless number of tasks. I always wondered why they faltered here in the U.S., and am not surprised to see them make a comeback now. QR codes facilitate a very large chunk of the $17 trillion in mobile payments processed every year in China, and I suspect we are well on our way to similar uptake here. Keep your eye on custom QR code designs, too. I would think marketers will be brushing the dust off of those soon, as well.

Liz Crawford

Consumers know what to do with a QR code. It makes sense to them. Also – a QR code is easy for a retailer or even mom-and-pop restaurant to use. The public has been trained to interact with this technology that links the physical and digital worlds – and that has paved the way to adoption.

Warren Thayer

Once we went from having to download an app to make QR codes (not!) work to having them interact seamlessly with our phones, it was a sea change. Not much more to it than that.

Raj B. Shroff

Yes, I see QR codes remaining popular but they will eventually be complemented by image recognition. QR will be used for more functional things like menus and IR for more creative campaign type of engagement.

After seeing QR so heavily used in China years ago, it’s amazing it took so long but the need and native QR scanning capabilities finally came together here.

As for how retailers should leverage them, I think the ways outlined are sensible, contactless transactions, sharing information, etc. Smaller retailers might benefit from putting them on shopping bags or other collateral to drive people to review sites, loyalty sign-ups, etc. They could also strategically place them on in-store graphics to tell broader stories or get shoppers to wider assortments quickly — there are many tactics depending on what retailers are trying to solve.

Suzanne Crettol

Improvements in technology simplified the use of QR codes and COVID-19 made them necessary. Are restaurant menus going to return in a post-COVID-19 world? Yes I think they will, but some will stick with a digital format because it saves money and can’t easily be updated.

Ralph Jacobson

Any new technology is all about generating compelling use cases. Online shopping took years to take hold… wasn’t Amazon founded in, like, 1994 or so? I know I wasn’t shopping online until at least 2000. Give the shopper a perk for using the QR code that makes sense for them, and adoption will happen.

Natalie Walkley

I am a convert from skeptic to evangelist of the QR code. Having to type in a URL or copy a URL is an additional barrier to entry. Additionally, you can get custom usage stats for QR codes giving them an even bigger appeal to users. The native camera did it for me. For retailers this is a great way to run promos, increase traffic, streamline return management, and offer an engaging (and easy!) customer experience. Wins all around!

Dan Frechtling

COVID-19 sped up QR code adoption. The “killer” apps are restaurant menus, touchless returns, payments, and other forms of contactless shopping. Uses such as product packaging, Instagram’s code generator, and connected TV have also re-engaged advertisers. Given the pandemic circumstances, the better term is not “killer” but more “lifeline app.”

Yet QR codes are a long term trend beyond the pandemic. Asia has proven that. As counterfeiting becomes a larger global issue, they are a good complement to RFID through traceability that helps suppress falsified products, especially in pharmaceuticals.

However there’s a word of warning. The “quick response” part of QR codes means shoppers often use them without thinking. Watch out for malicious QR codes that can install malware, capture personal data or direct users to unsafe websites. QR code education and vigilance will be important in 2021.

Casey Craig

QR codes emerged before they were necessary, but it wasn’t until the consumer had a real demand for technology like this that it really became valuable for businesses. This is a great example of why companies should be building digital solutions their customers are asking for, rather than accommodating the latest fad. Innovation is valuable, but it can’t ever be the ultimate end. Just the means to the end.

Carlos Arambula

The more we rely on mobile devices, the more relevant QR codes will become.

"QR codes did not change, we did. Or more specifically, the world around the QR code changed drastically."

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