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Can’t touch this... QR codes!

Can’t touch this... QR Codes! | Edgar Allan

Once considered mere marketing fad, it appears as though Quick Response codes have been slowly reemerging over the past several years, and may finally cement their place in our daily lives as the no-touch tool we never knew we needed.

The QR Code was first designed in 1994 for the auto industry to track vehicles during manufacturing. Short for Quick Response codes, the scannable, black and white squares found their heyday in the early 2010s when they started popping up on everything from bus ads to business cards as a way to get to a website without manually entering a URL. But almost as quickly as they seemed to rise in popularity they disappeared, reduced to short-lived, marketing fad status (see the 2012 Forbes article, “Are QR Codes Dead?”). Until now. 

In our new no-touch mode of being, QR codes are officially making a comeback. They’re being used at restaurants to display menus and for coronavirus contact tracing. Paypal launched a QR feature in May for contactless transactions and Instagram launched one in August. Even Animal Crossing has gotten in on the QR code trend.  

Granted we were already seeing a usage rise over the past couple of years thanks to a few key factors: the increasing number of smartphone users, better access to high-speed mobile internet, and the ability to scan a QR code without an app (newer phone models do it automatically through their cameras; Apple added this support through its iOS 11 operating system, released in 2017). And further, in addition to being a touch-free medium, brands are touting other benefits of QR codes, including cost-savings and environmental sustainability as the code replaces printed materials.  

Here’s a couple of other examples of how QR codes are being implemented in different industries today, meeting consumers’ human needs with touchless service, and bridging the offline and online. 


Coronavirus contact tracing isn’t the only healthcare-related use for QR codes today. They’re also an important tool for patient identification and identity management. In hospitals and other healthcare facilities, QR codes are printed on patient ID wristbands, providing a quick, easy way to ensure proper identification, and access important information about the patient medical history and data from admission to discharge. 

As the digital health industry expands, QR codes are proving useful when it comes to remote care as well. In August, London-based digital health company TestCard announced its new at-home non-invasive urinary tract infection (UTI) testing kit, which includes a scannable QR code that tells the accompanying TestCard app what type of test is being carried out (the company is also working on a glucose self-test kit and a malaria self-test kit that will work the same way). 


Like with restaurants, many hotels are using QR codes to display menus or to direct people to webpages where they can directly order food online. Hotels in the Eat Drink Sleep brand have even had QR codes laser-cut onto wooden cards by a local company, to match more with its aesthetic when displayed on diners’ tables. But that’s not the only way they’re being used on hotel properties. Hilton hotels are also using QR codes to provide information about their CleanStay program to guests; codes are included on signage and notices throughout the hotels and guests can scan them to learn more about the cleaning procedures and protocols.

The TV remote has also gotten a QR makeover. Often found to be the most contaminated item in a hotel room, multiple products have launched recently allowing hotel guests to pair their phones with their in-room TVs to use as a remote controller instead. Phillips created “GuestConnect” for this purpose. QR codes are generated and displayed at reception and can be provided during check-in to the hotel or, alternatively, displayed for the customer to scan and download when they first switch on their in-room TV. 


Have you gone shopping at Whole Foods recently? And are you an Amazon Prime member? Then you’re probably already pulling out your Amazon app during checkout and scanning the in-store QR code that automatically applies Prime membership savings to your total. Whole Foods isn’t the only one; retailers across the field are using QR codes on their mobile apps to identify loyalty accounts as well as take payments, from Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts to Target, Walmart and CVS.    

QR codes are also popping up on product labels and packaging to provide additional information; in fact, this so-called “smart packaging” market is expected to grow to a value of $7.56 billion by 2023. It’s already become a legal requirement to add a QR code for food that is genetically modified or has GMO ingredients so consumers can see the food’s in-depth GMO information, but many food manufacturing brands are also using smart labels through an initiative launched by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute to provide shoppers with deeper information about product, including ingredients, potential allergens, and even info on sourcing and sustainability. 

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