• James Smithdale

What’s the secret behind the resurgence of the QR code?

QR codes are nothing new, but they have had a powerful renaissance as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Years’ worth of customer understanding and behavioural change have been packed into the space of less than 12 months, and this technology is now primed to surge in importance thanks to its ability to connect the digital world to the physical.

Proven success in China and East Asia

Whilst QR code technology previously received a lukewarm reception in Western economies, in China and other East Asian countries it has become a normal part of day-to-day digital interactions.

In China, the “WeChat QR Economy” has been growing at an astonishing rate. The Chinese app WeChat is the biggest and best example of a QR code-orientated solution and is one that has usage and popularity on a quite remarkable scale.

In the first quarter of 2020 for example, and despite Covid-19 disruption, the WeChat QR code economy increased by 25.86% in value from the prior year. Businesses and individuals used WeChat QR codes over 140 billion times in total, which on average helped each user save over 29 hours.

Familiarity and simplicity mean popularity with users

One of the key reasons that QR-code based solutions are so well-placed to succeed is their inherent familiarity to users. Not only are the vast majority of adults used to scanning their groceries at the supermarket, but even older generations have been seen confidently using mobile boarding cards at the airport in recent years. Covid-19 brought about yet more widespread use and recognition of QR codes, for example checking into venues with the NHS app or accessing restaurant menus.

The simplicity behind QR code interactions is also key to the technology’s success. Scanning something to achieve a predictable result is delightfully simple, instantaneous, and hassle-free, not to mention completely contactless. These days, scanning QR codes is particularly straightforward now that this functionality is baked into the camera app of the major smartphone operating systems, which removes the need for additional apps.

More powerful means more potential

Whilst contactless payment has soared in popularity over the last decade in the UK, the powerful flexibility inherent in QR code scanning, both inside and outside the payment context, makes it well-placed to grow exponentially.

The depth of functionality, together with examples of industry standardisation in China and other countries, has allowed the technology to emerge as a highly effective contactless means of payment in those countries. Outside of payment, it also has significant potential owing to its speed, convenience, and — especially in today’s climate — contactless nature.

Reading between the lines, the signs are there to suggest that QR-orientated solutions are finally ready to make an effective appearance in the West. However, this was apparent even before the pandemic, as demonstrated by tech giants and retailers taking various steps to improve their barcode scanning capabilities.

Tech and retail giants are investing heavily in QR code-orientated solutions

The more obvious of these signs have originated from tech giants like Apple and PayPal and, in the UK market specifically, from British supermarkets.

Apple first signalled intent in this regard when it included QR code scanning in the iOS Camera app for iPhones in 2017. More recently, as of July 2020, it looks like Apple may be bringing QR code payment to Apple Pay. PayPal also made a move in May 2020 to bring payment by QR code to 28 markets worldwide.

UK supermarkets have also shown signs of investing in the technology. Many customers will have noticed that the largest supermarkets in particular have been upgrading their tills with upgraded barcode scanners. With big players like Sainsbury’s using a digital-only Nectar card scheme since October 2019, ensuring its point of sale hardware was up to scanning barcodes from smartphones was essential.

Mini barcode scanners underneath payment pads have also been spotted in the express/local versions of Sainsbury’s and Waitrose. Such hardware investments across large store portfolios do not come cheap, and thus are a strong indicator of the biggest players in British retail banking on this technology and customer behaviour playing a big role going forwards.

Huge growth expected in the coming years

QR codes are accordingly firmly back on the radar. As QR-code technology continues to embed its success in China and the Far East, to many it has seemed inevitable that this success would eventually travel from East to West. The arrival of the pandemic and the rise of QR code usage that came with it has significantly increased the consumer familiarity needed for that technological migration to be successful.

The stage is set for the technology we use in everyday life to continue to evolve at an extraordinary rate over the coming years, and QR codes will undoubtedly be making a move to take the centre of that stage.

James Smithdale

Founder, pqCode

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