Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Speciality Restaurants used a tablet to take orders. Now, that practice has been abandoned, unless a customer doesn’t want to go online and specifically asks for a menu.
“We had to make the whole process of ordering food touchless, so we migrated to QR code. It is much safer when you are using your own phone to order food. You don’t have to touch a menu card or a tab that is passed around the hall,” says Anjan Chatterjee, managing director of Speciality Restaurants. “The QR code arrangement has smoothened operations; ordering food and making payment are very easy now. We are making eating out risk-free,”
QR codes have become a part of our daily lives, with almost every product manufacturer or service provider using it to drive home a specific objective. Payments and fintech players, FMCG companies, retailers, travel operators & hospitality businesses, food companies, healthcare sector and even donation platforms use the code with varying degrees of success.
While its utility value has only expanded over the past two years, QR codes have been around for over 25 years since Masahiro Hara, an engineer at Japan’s Denso Wave Corp., invented it in 1994. “I thought QR codes would only be used for business purposes. I didn’t expect it to become so popular that the general public would use it on the streets,” Hara, now 64, tells ET. “I never thought QR codes would be used for payments or electronic ticketing,” he adds.
A QR code is a two-dimensional version of a normal barcode that can convey a wide variety of information almost instantly with the scan of a mobile device. While a barcode, mostly seen on product boxes, holds information horizontally, a QR code holds information in both horizontal and vertical directions. Therefore, a QR code can hold hundreds of times more information than a barcode. A QR code can store up to 7,089 digits or 4,296 characters, including punctuation marks and special characters. QR codes can have links to webpages (URLs), PDFs, text and images. There are several websites and mobile apps that allow you to create QR codes free of cost. There are also a few companies that help you customise the codes according to branding needs. But QR codes can only be scanned with a smartphone or a tablet; feature phones are generally not equipped to scan it.
Most companies use QR codes to disseminate information regarding products or services. Manufacturers use them to assure customers of the quality or provenance of products.
Take Welspun, which sells home textiles in some of the largest department stores. A Welspun bedspread or terry towel, made of premium fibres such as Egyptian cotton, Turkish cotton or Supima cotton, carry a QR code to establish its authenticity.
“Customers should be sure of what they are buying. They should know the authenticity of a premium product, for which they are paying a higher price. As a manufacturer, we believe the entire supply chain of a product should be traceable,” says Keyur Parekh, president & global head (home textiles), Welspun. “A QR code helps us explain the product better, and it also carries a seal of authenticity. We are able to establish the provenance of our products. Coding also brings in efficiency and helps us meet our ESG (environmental, social, and governance) requirements.”
Product or value chain traceability is turning out to be a key element in food retail as well. Large food retail brands such as Nature’s Basket keep QR-coded fruits and vegetables on their shelves; a customer simply has to scan the code to get details such as the farm from where a fruit is sourced, among others.
“There is a growing trend among consumers to know everything about the food products they buy. QR codes provide them with information about the entire value chain that back-of-the-pack can’t,” says Devendra Chawla, managing director and chief executive of Spencer’s Retail, which runs a host of convenience stores and hypermarkets across the country. “QR codes can go a long way in building trust between a brand and customers. From an operations point of view, QR codes have helped us scale up our out-of-store channels. A lot of people scan-and-pay in our stores these days.”
“This arrangement has also ensured faster reconciliation of accounts,” he adds.
Startups like GoToChef have built business cases around QR codes. Its app scans codes on packaged food products and churns out related content such as ingredients, recipes and best-price options. The company claims to have visual- and audio-based content for over 25,000 products. “QR codes may get more personalised in future — with specialised scanning apps, people may be able to pick and choose products suitable for themselves,” says Kavneet Sahni, founder-chief executive of GoToChef.
Almost all product advertisements and marketing and brand building initiatives carry QR codes to communicate more effectively with their patrons. According to Agnello Dias, former chief creative chairman of Dentsu India, QR codes induce a kind of “impulse behaviour” in customers because it is very easy.
“It also relieves traditional advertising from the burden of communicating vast quantities of information. So it’s a convenient bridge between the two strategies of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ marketing,” says Dias.
Hospitality & tourism sector, which has been severely impacted on account of covid-related restrictions, has started using QR codes to make their businesses contactless and more efficient. Forex dealers and tour operators use codes to capture customer enquiries and other business-related information. Airports use them extensively to reduce touch points while large hotel chains have put in place scan-and-check-in options.
“QR code is a very helpful tool in the travel industry. It helps to reduce people milling around in the waiting area or queuing up in front of counters,” says Abraham Alapatt, president & country head (marketing, service quality & innovation), Thomas Cook India. “QR codes can be used where there is a need to bridge manual interface with a digital interface,” he adds.
The healthcare sector too is employing QR codes to filter visitors on the basis of their service requirement. Apart from reducing touch points at medical facilities, the codes are used to facilitate functions such as booking doctor appointments, patient registrations, ordering medicines and making payments.
“Introducing QR codes at healthcare facilities is quite similar to initiating a business process re-engineering,” says Arvind Sivaramakrishnan, chief information officer at Apollo Hospitals. “A set of aptly placed codes helps to decongest hospital waiting areas. It is a prudent technology that helps to offer service in a desirable and cost-efficient manner.”
Covid & Code
The latest use of QR code is on Covid-19 vaccination certificates for authentication purposes. Upon scanning the code, if the vaccination certificate is genuine, the screen will display a message saying, ‘Certificate successfully verified.’ If it is fake, the message box will flash ‘Certificate invalid.’ To get a vaccine passport for overseas travel, one has to update one’s passport number in the certificate. The QR code can be scanned and verified by airport/immigration authorities.
Even non-profit organisations and charitable trusts are using QR codes to streamline their donor and donation channels. “The scan-and-pay market is almost 25% of total donations,” says Atul Satija, CEO of GiveIndia and founder of The Nudge Foundation. “Many donors prefer to use QR codes as it is easy. A lion’s share of small donations comes through this route.”
The popularity of QR codes soared after payment companies (and other fintech players) started using it in conjunction with UPI, an instant payment system developed by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI).
Startups like Paytm and PhonePe revolutionised its use in peer-to-peer payments. This trend started right after demonetisation in 2016, and gathered deeper roots around Covid-19, when people were apprehensive of exchanging currency notes.
“QR codes became popular with UPI,” says Anand Kumar Bajaj, founder-chief executive of PayNearby, a fintech player. “Now 70-80 lakh merchants have QR codes to accept payments. Scan-and-pay transactions have grown manifold in the past two years. Nearly 50% of scan-and-pay users reside in smaller cities and towns,” he adds.
But one needs to be careful while scanning the QR code, say cybersecurity experts. “A QR code is one more way for scamsters to attack your phone and draw out information stored in your device,” says Burgess Cooper, a cybersecurity expert and partner at EY. “You should not scan every QR code on walls and in pamphlets. By doing so, you are inviting rogue malware into your phones,” he adds.
According to Cooper, QR code hosts (owners of a QR code) should build security systems around codes. “Even a simple one-time password adds to the security quotient of the QR code,” he says.