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The rise of the humble QR code (and how it’s changing retail)

illustration of oversized mobile devices with QR codes available to scan for online shopping. a man and woman with a shopping cart are next to the large tablets and smartphone.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to navigate a touchless world – and to utilize previously unfamiliar technologies to help us do it. 

After decades of being overlooked by retailers and brands, QR codes are finally having their moment in the sun. According to Mobileiron’s 2020 study, 84% of people have scanned a QR code at some point, with 32% having scanned one in the past week alone. In short, they’ve rapidly become embedded into the customer experience.

So, what does this resurgence mean for retailers?

In this post, we’re taking a deep dive into the rise of QR codes – and how it’s changing the world of retail.

What is a QR code?

A QR code (or Quick Response code) is a matrix barcode that can be scanned using a smartphone or other imaging device to receive information. The black squares represent encoded data that issues a command to bring up a certain web address or initiate an action such as a payment or a ‘check-in’ at a specific location.  

How do QR codes work?

While QR codes might come across as very high-tech, the underlying principle is no different than the regular barcode you find on a price tag. 

But unlike a standard barcode which can only record 20 characters, a QR code is capable of holding over 7000 characters, or 3KB worth of data. This gives it almost limitless applications within retail, marketing, and manufacturing.

Advantages of QR codes

Capable of encoding a variety of information

QR codes can be used to store data for anything from websites and videos to email and online forms. This makes them a powerful and versatile call-to-action for marketing campaigns or product launches.


Businesses can use QR codes to spread brand recognition by adding their own brand colors or logos into the design – and to inject some humor and flair, as shown by Taco Bell:

No expiry

Although they can become inactive if the page or content they are linked to is removed, QR Codes themselves never actually expire. This makes them a fantastic tool for brick-and-mortar retailers who want to make QR codes permanent installations with their stores.

QR codes: A slow rise to the mainstream

QR codes were first invented by a Japanese auto parts manufacturer in 1994 to track components during the manufacturing process. With its practically limitless applications, QR codes were in widespread usage across Asia by the early 2000s. 

But in the West, the use of QR codes was slow to catch on. It’s only been in the past year that QR codes have come anywhere near the level of ubiquity seen in countries like Japan and China.

But why has it taken until now for QR codes to hit the mainstream globally?

There are two key factors at play here; one is technological, while the other is a major shift in consumer habits:

Native scanning capabilities

From the very beginning, QR codes promised convenience and seamless experiences – but for a long time lacked the infrastructure to deliver them. 

Because most smartphones lacked built-in QR code readers, actually using a code required downloading a supporting app – a level of friction that was just too much for most consumers, as illustrated here by David Pierce from Wired:

“QR codes seemed like a window to the future. Just point your camera, scan the code, and instantly check into your favorite place on Foursquare. At least, that was the idea. More often it went like this: Point your camera, remember your phone’s camera doesn’t do QR scanning on its own, download another app, open that app, point the camera, scan the code, and end up on some corporate website that’s not even optimized for your phone.”

Convenient? Not so much.

China was a notable exception due to its popular social networking platform WeChat having a built-in QR code reader. The closest that Western social media giants came to this functionality was Snapchat’s addition of ‘SnapCodes’ in 2016, enabling users to add friends via scanning their profile’s custom QR code.

It wasn’t until Apple and Android introduced scanning functionality in 2017 that QR codes had the potential to gain more widespread use – but this was still years away.

The demand for contactless retail 

Many forms of technology need some kind of catalyst for their potential to be realized. For radar, it was WWII. For QR codes, it was the COVID-19 pandemic.

Until 2020, QR codes were still considered a gimmick as much as a serious utility (think Gillette’s infamous ad campaign featuring Kate Upton). 

But when activities like visiting or store or using a card reader suddenly became a health risk, QR codes were poised and ready to lead the charge towards safer, socially-distanced retail experiences.

Countries including Singapore, New Zealand, and Australia mandated the display of QR codes for contact tracing purposes at businesses and public venues. This allows customers to ‘check-in’ and receive an alert if they are present at a location at the same time as someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 – a new application of old technology.

Furthermore, the pandemic has led to a massive acceleration in the use of contactless payment to avoid high-touch surfaces and objects. 58% of US consumers say they are more likely to use contactless payments than ever before, according to a survey by American Express, setting the scene for a lasting addition to CX expectations.

Mobile wallets have started joining the bandwagon, with PayPal rolling out a QR code scanning feature in April 2020 to meet growing demand. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, which have long used QR codes as a way to offer safe payment between individuals, are also set to see a long-term boost in interest.

So, what’s next for QR codes?

In 2021, QR Codes have achieved the ultimate goal of every technology; habitual usage. ‘Point and scan’ has become a well-ingrained mentality that is unlikely to disappear once the pandemic is over. This gives brands a huge opportunity to leverage QR codes as a lasting feature of the in-store experience.

Experiential marketing techniques such as augmented reality and interactive rewards programs now have entirely new applications due to QR codes’ shift in perception. No longer considered clunky or outmoded, the strength of QR codes lies in their simplicity and breadth of use. For retailers, the sky is the limit.

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