Are QR codes a savvy sustainability measure or another greenwashing tactic at the expense of the consumer?

Picture yourself sitting at a restaurant on a sidewalk of Manhattan. You’re searching for a menu, but none are on the table. You flag down a waiter and with a dismissive smile he points to a square box with a pattern of black pixels. Sighing, you retrieve your smartphone, point the camera, and wait for a connecting signal.

But there’s no signal where you are seated. Nor if you raise your arm in the air. You end up wandering into the middle of the street, tangoing with taxis and avoiding the glare of the sun, but finally a tiny digital menu appears on your screen. Straining your eyes, you can just about make out the choices available.

But now you notice your favourite dish has disappeared from the menu, and the prices have all changed since your last visit a week ago. (No time to query this though – your battery has less than 3 per cent, so if you want something to eat, you need to order quick!)

QR codes are not only challenging to read and come with a host of potential technical issues, but they also allow restaurant and hotel operators to change prices to meet demand through the day. They can go up and down as fast as the NASDAQ stock exchange index.  Not only that, they can track your personal information – what and how frequently you order, where you ordered it, and more.

The QR, or ‘Quick Response’, code was originally invented in Japan in 1994 to keep track of car parts, but it has since found its way into many industries. After the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become almost universal in hotels and restaurants globally, when QR codes were adopted as a “touch-free option” by big brands to replace paper or card menus, along with other Covid cleaning initiatives. Of course, in the same stroke, printing costs were reduced, marketing information was freely available and prices could be changed as frequently as a New York traffic light.

Tracking your preferences

Like so many other changes that occurred at the height of the pandemic, from call centre operators working from home to the loss of reading materials in airport lounges and cabins, the great business travelling public graciously accepted the inconvenience.

However while many things have returned to normal, the ubiquitous and pervasive QR code remains. Conor Friedersdorf, a columnist for The Atlantic, commented in October that it was the restauranteur’s worst idea and a Technomic survey found that 88 per cent of respondents preferred paper menus.

Nicole Ozer, the North Californian representative of ACLU (the American Civil Liberties Union) has warned of the risks that come with QR codes, from privacy issues with your personal information to security issues from the potential for malware. She also highlights equity concerns for people who don’t have access to a smartphone.

Meanwhile, Chris Comparato, the CEO of Toast, a cloud-based restaurant management software company, argues QR codes not only offer pricing flexibility and marketing information to operators, but permit the customer to order and pay from their smartphone wallet at the same time.

Those who have a deep-rooted affection for mobile phones and produce them at every social interaction may well enjoy the efficiency of the whole concept and point to the wonderful benefits of less paper and more sustainability. But there are plenty of us who don’t feel this way.

With one ear to the growing dissatisfaction of QR codes, some operators have switched to the dreaded tablet, a device coated in a thick rubber frame with smeared glass showing pictures of the menu offerings. It still offers cost savings from not having to print menus and the opportunity to change prices, which certainly suits the seller, but for the buyer it’s challenging to use, unattractive to look at and unhygienic to touch.

Digital resistance

It’s unclear whether menus will return in any physical and material format. But having something tangible, where you can feel its quality and view together with your companion, can form part of a great dining experience.

Rom Krupp of OneDine, a hospitality tech company, said on CNN that it will take time for diners to adapt. He pointed out that many travellers still prefer to check in at the airport ticket counter rather than via their smartphones or online, and added: “There is going to be a percentage of customers who are not comfortable with the digital experience yet and would prefer a physical menu.”

Printers and punters alike are hoping restaurants take note. It may well have been a prudent move to replace menus with QR codes during the pandemic, but I can only hope that restauranteurs and hoteliers will not take to it as they did with not washing bed sheets and towels – claiming it saves our planet, when in fact, it saves the bottom line.

Derek Picot has been a hotelier for more than 30 years, and is author of Hotel Reservations.