Why QR Codes Are Coming Back In a Big Way

They Used To Seem So Pointless. Here's Why They Matter Now

Mar 11, 2020

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  We thought we witnessed the demise of QR codes, but it looks like they were written off too soon.

Quick response codes – QR codes for short – were said to be the next big thing in marketing about 12 years ago, promising to quickly direct consumers to websites, apps and social media profiles with a scan. Companies rolled them out in major campaigns. But they never really caught on with consumers, and eventually they were dismissed as a silly gimmick. That’s changing.

Maryland Smith’s P.K. Kannan says QR codes are coming into their own and making a major resurgence.

These days, Amazon is using them for customer returns, and for all purchases in its Go stores and its coming-soon supermarket. Apple Pay is using them to help diners pay their restaurant tabs. Scooter company Bird is using them for mobile payments. In Europe, grocery chains are using them to mark goods by country of origin. China turned to them in the fight to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

“What has changed is that we are moving toward item-based identification,” says Kannan, the Dean’s Chair in Marketing Science at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “With cashless checkouts becoming more common, QR codes are very useful in the purchase or return of any item due to how inexpensive it is to use.”

Improved smartphone technology is enabling that change.

QR codes used to be so annoying. Slow internet connection speeds, low-quality cameras and the fact that QR codes used to require a third-party app to be used at all – these things made people despise QR codes. People were rooting for their demise. But no more.

“With 5G connection speeds coming, you will see more applications roll out QR codes because those speeds make it easy to access information when you need it,” Kannan says. “Plus, with newer smartphones integrating QR code reading software, reading codes becomes as simple as opening your phone’s camera and scanning.”

In stores, QR codes can allow consumers to read product reviews, or check ingredients in food products. They can also facilitate payments and allow consumers to make person-to-person transactions.

Use of the codes has become especially prevalent in Asian countries in recent years, says Kannan. Western countries are gaining some ground in that area too, he says, helped by in-app integration by Snapchat, LinkedIn and Venmo, and growing adoption by adults in their teens and 20s.

Cashless stores, like Amazon’s and the ones more common in China, may spur the widespread use of the codes in the United States.

“As barriers continue to fall, U.S. consumers will begin behaving more like Chinese consumers,” Kannan says. “Scanning is just in the early stages here. Wherever stores start adopting this, you will find QR codes too.”



About the Expert(s)


P. K. Kannan is the Dean's Chair in Marketing Science at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. His main research focus is on marketing modeling, applying statistical and econometric methods to marketing data. His current research stream focuses on attribution modeling, media mix modeling, new product/service development and customer relationship management (CRM).

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