QR Codes are Permanent. So is the Tracking They Allow.


SAN FRANCISCO – When people walk into Teeth, a bar in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, the bouncer gives them options. He says they can order food and drinks from the bar or order through a store. QR code.

Each table in Teeth has a card decorated with a code, which is a pixelated black and white square. Customers just need to scan with their phone camera to open a website for the online menu. They can then enter their credit card information to pay without touching a paper menu or interacting with a server.

A scene like this was rare 18 months ago, but not anymore. “In 13 years of bar ownership in San Francisco, I have never seen such a drastic change that put the majority of customers into new behavior so quickly,” said Ben Bleiman, owner of Teeth.

Essentially a type of barcode that enables transactions to be contactless, QR codes have emerged as a permanent technology fixture from the coronavirus pandemic. Restaurants adopted them en masse, retailers including CVS and Foot Locker added them to their checkout records, and marketers splashed them on retail packaging, direct mail, billboards, and TV commercials.

But the spread of the codes has allowed businesses to integrate more tools for tracking, targeting and analytics, raising red flags for privacy experts. This is because QR codes can store digital information such as when, where, and how often a scan occurred. They can also open an app or website that monitors or requires people to enter their personal information.

As a result, QR codes have allowed some restaurants to create a database of customers’ order histories and contact information. In retail chains, people may soon be faced with personalized offers and incentives marketed within QR code payment systems.

“People don’t realize that when you use a QR code, it puts the entire online tracking device between you and your food,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Suddenly, your offline eating activity has become part of the online advertising empire.”

QR codes may be new to many American buyers, but popular internationally for years. Invented in 1994 to facilitate automobile production in a Japanese company, QR codes have become widely used in China in recent years after being integrated into AliPay and WeChat Pay. digital payment applications.

Scott Stratten, who co-wrote the 2013 book “QR Codes Kill Kittens” with his wife, said that in the United States, technology is hampered by inept marketing, lack of consumer understanding, and the difficulty of needing a dedicated app to scan codes. , Alison Stratten.

Mr Stratten said this has changed for two reasons. He said that in 2017, Apple made it possible for cameras on iPhones to recognize QR codes, making the technology more mainstream. Then, he said, “The pandemic came and it’s incredible what a pandemic can do to us.”

Added half of all full-service restaurant operators in the United States QR code menus According to the National Restaurant Association, since the beginning of the pandemic. In May 2020, PayPal introduced QR code payments and has since added it to CVS, Nike, Foot Locker and nearly a million small businesses. Square, another digital payments firm, launched a QR code ordering system for restaurants and retailers in September.

Sharat Potharaju, CEO of digital marketing company MobStac, said businesses don’t want to give up the benefits QR codes bring to their profits. Deals and special offers can be bundled with QR code systems, and it’s easy for people to come across when they look at their phone, he said. Businesses can also collect data on consumer spending patterns through QR codes.

“With traditional media like billboard or TV, you can guess how many people may have seen it, but you don’t know how people actually interacted with it,” said Sarah Cucchiara, senior vice president of marketing firm BrandMuscle. introduced a QR code menu product last year. “We can report these scans with QR codes.”

Cheqout and Mr. Yum, two start-ups selling technology to create QR code menus in restaurants, also said the codes bring advantages to businesses.

Tom Sharon, co-founder of Cheqout, said that restaurants using QR code menus can save 30 percent to 50 percent in labor costs by reducing or eliminating the need for servers to take orders and get paid.

Kim Teo, co-founder of Mr. Yum, said digital menus also make it easier to persuade people to spend more with offers to add more french fries or replace more expensive spirits with photos of menu items to make them more appealing. Orders placed via the QR code menu also allow Mr. Yum to let restaurants know what items are being sold so they can add a menu section with the most popular items or highlight the dishes they want to sell.

These increased digital capabilities are worrying privacy experts. For example, Mr. Yum uses cookies from the digital menu to track a customer’s purchase history and gives restaurants access to this information based on the customer’s phone number and credit cards. Teo said there is a pilot software in Australia so restaurants can offer people a “recommended to you” portion based on their previous orders.

QR codes are “an important first step in making your experience in the physical space outside of your home feel like you’re being watched by Google on your screen,” said Lucy Bernholz, director of Stanford University’s Digital Civil Society Lab.

Ms. Teo said that each restaurant’s customer data is only available at that establishment and Mr. Yum does not use this information to reach customers. It also said that it does not sell the data to any third-party brokers.

Mr. Sharon said Cheqout only collects customers’ names, phone numbers and protected payment information and does not sell it to third parties.

On a recent noisy evening at Teeth, customers shared mixed reviews of Cheqout’s QR code ordering system, which the bar installed in August. Some said it was convenient, but added that they would prefer a traditional menu at a fine dining venue.

“If you’re on a date and you’re whipping your phone, it’s a distraction,” said 29-year-old Daniela Sernich.

Jonathan Brooner-Contreras, 26, said the QR code ordering was convenient, but feared the technology would put him out of business as a bartender at a different bar in the neighborhood.

“It’s like a factory replacing all its workers with robots,” he said. “People depend on these 40 hours.”

Regardless of customers’ sentiments, Mr Bleiman said Cheqout’s data shows that about half of Teeth’s orders, and up to 65 percent during televised sports games, come from the QR code system.

“They may not like it,” he said in a text message. “But they do!”


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