QR Codes Are Here to Stay. So Is the Tracking They Allow.
SAN FRANCISCO – When people walk into Teeth, a bar in San Francisco’s Mission district, the bouncer gives them options. They can order food and drink from the bar, he says, or they can order through a QR code.
Each Teeth table has a card emblazoned with the code, a pixelated black and white square. Customers simply scan it with their phone’s camera to open a website for the online menu. Then, they can enter their credit card information to pay, all without touching a paper menu or interacting with a server.
A scene like this was rare 18 months ago, but not anymore. “In 13 years of owning a bar in San Francisco, I have never seen a drastic change like this that has brought the majority of patrons to new behavior so quickly,” said Ben Bleiman, owner of Teeth .
QR codes – essentially a kind of barcode that allows transactions to be contactless – have become a permanent piece of technology in the coronavirus pandemic. Restaurants have adopted them en masse, retailers including CVS and Foot Locker have added them to cash registers, and marketers have splashed them all over retail packaging, direct mail, billboards and television commercials.
But the spread of the codes also allowed companies to integrate more tracking, targeting and analysis tools, which alerted privacy experts. This is because QR codes can store digital information such as when, where, and how often a scan occurs. They can also open an app or website that then tracks people’s personal information or requires them to enter it.
As a result, QR codes have enabled some restaurants to create a database of order history and contact details for their customers. In retail chains, people may soon be faced with personalized offers and incentives marketed in QR code payment systems.
“People don’t understand that when you use a QR code, it inserts the entire online tracking device between you and your meal,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Suddenly your offline activity of sitting down to a meal is now part of the online advertising empire. “
QR codes may be new to many US shoppers, but they have been popular internationally for years. Invented in 1994 to streamline automobile manufacturing at a Japanese company, QR codes have become widely used in China in recent years after being incorporated into AliPay and WeChat Pay digital payment apps.
In the United States, technology has been hampered by clunky marketing, a lack of consumer understanding, and the difficulty of needing a special app to scan codes, said Scott Stratten, who wrote the book. 2013 business “QR Codes Kill Kittens” with his wife. , Alison Stratten.
This has changed for two reasons, Mr Stratten said. In 2017, he said, Apple enabled cameras on iPhones to recognize QR codes, spreading the technology more widely. Then came the “pandemic, and it’s amazing what a pandemic can do for us,” he said.
Half of all full-service restaurant operators in the United States have added QR code menus since the start of the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association. In May 2020, PayPal introduced QR code payments and has since added them to CVS, Nike, Foot Locker, and around a million small businesses. Square, another digital payment company, rolled out a QR code ordering system for restaurants and retailers in September.
Businesses don’t want to give up the benefits QR codes have brought to their bottom line, said Sharat Potharaju, managing director of digital marketing firm MobStac. Deals and specials can be bundled with QR code systems and are easy to present to people when they look at their phones, he said. Businesses can also collect data on consumer spending habits through QR codes.
“With traditional media, like a billboard or television, you can estimate how many people may have seen it, but you don’t know how people actually interacted with it,” said Sarah Cucchiara, vice-president. senior president at BrandMuscle, a marketing company. which introduced a QR code menu product last year. “With QR codes, we can get reports on these scans. “
Cheqout and Mr. Yum, two start-ups that sell technology to create QR-coded menus in restaurants, also said the codes have brought benefits to businesses.
Restaurants that use QR code menus can save 30-50% on labor costs by reducing or eliminating the need for waiters to take orders and collect payments, said Tom Sharon, co -founder of Cheqout.
Digital menus also make it easier to persuade people to spend more with offers to add fries or replace more expensive spirits in a cocktail party, with photographs of menu items to make them more appealing, said Kim Teo, co. -founder of Mr. Yum. Orders placed through the QR code menu also allow Mr. Yum to notify restaurants of items for sale, so they can add a menu section with the most popular items or highlight the dishes they wish to sell.
QR codes “are an important first step in making your experience in the physical space outside your home look like Google tracking on your screen,” said Lucy Bernholz, director of the Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford University.
Ms. Teo said data on each restaurant’s customers was only available for that establishment and Mr. Yum did not use that information to contact customers. It also doesn’t sell the data to third-party brokers, she said.
Cheqout only collects names, phone numbers and protected payment information from customers, which it does not sell to third parties, Mr. Sharon said.
On a recent breezy evening at Teeth’s, customers shared mixed reviews of Cheqout’s QR code ordering system, which the bar had installed in August. Some said it was convenient, but added that they would prefer a traditional menu at a fine dining establishment.
“If you have a date and you pull out your phone, it’s a distraction,” said Daniela Sernich, 29.
Jonathan Brooner-Contreras, 26, said ordering QR codes was convenient, but worried technology would put him out of his job as a bartender at another bar in the neighborhood.
“It’s like a factory is replacing all of its workers with robots,” he said. “People depend on those 40 hours. “
Regardless of customer sentiment, Mr Bleiman said data from Cheqout showed that about half of Teeth’s orders – and up to 65% during sports game shows – went through the QR code system.
“They may not like it,” he said in a text message. “But they do!”
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