The use of QR codes in restaurants is losing the popularity they gained post-pandemic, with QR code scans in restaurants falling by more than a quarter (27%) in a year and 88% of diners preferring paper menus to digital QR codes.

These were among the results of a me&u USA survey, which also found nearly half (49%) of consumers would visit restaurants deploying technology offering a personalized menu tailored to their preferences; information that should leave business leaders in the restaurant industry considering their digital transformation initiatives carefully. 

Brian Duncan, president of me&u USA, says as with any other new product or process, people are not normally receptive to change. He points out that the need to customize experiences for each individual visitor has become increasingly important for restaurants.

“Removing a generations-old process like a menu, and replacing it with a QR code, is displacing a norm that has been around for decades, if not centuries,” he says. “Adding a QR code that does not serve a purpose, or make the dining experience easier for the customer, is tougher to swallow. It is essentially adding technology with very little benefit.”

When a QR code serves purpose in the restaurant, people are more receptive to trying new things, he adds. A QR code built around allowing the server to provide better customer service to more diners would be an example, where customers can view the menu, order food, pay their bill, and most importantly, tip their server.

“The convenience to the customer, and the increased revenue, outweighs the discomfort that comes with change,” Duncan explains.

He adds that during the pandemic there was a need for touchless solutions, and this introduced consumers to many new useful applications built around QR codes.

“QR codes have also been introduced in other industries to share information quickly without having to navigate a website or fill out lengthy forms,” he notes. “Fortunately, or unfortunately for some, the QR code is here to stay and can be found in all facets of consumer interactions.”

Duncan points out that while restaurants may have been many consumers’ first interaction with QR codes, they now can be found on the back of consumer packaging and in television commercials.

“My suggestion to all people who think QR codes are useless is to scan one, and then scan another, and another,” he says. “I believe what they will find is that each QR code experience is different and not created equal, just like everything else we interact with in our lives. There are a lot of other products that use QR codes to create value as well.”

In fact, more than half of US consumers in a recent survey by investment bank William Blair said they would use QR codes to order and pay at drinking and dining establishments if given the option.

However, a significant portion of respondents (47%) expressed discomfort when it comes to using QR codes for tasks like accessing, ordering and making payments.

The survey further reveals that older users tend to be the least receptive, with 65% of individuals over 60 years of age stating their discomfort with QR codes.

“It’s important to point out that over half of respondents to our surveys have said that they are at least comfortable with using QR codes for some restaurant processes, such as menu access, ordering, or paying, so many people are still willing and comfortable using QR codes in some fashion,” says William Blair research analyst Stephen Sheldon.

He explains there are a few factors commonly heard in terms of consumer pushback against QR codes.

“Consumers wanting to physically see and hold the menu is the most common, and that’s especially true for table service restaurants,” he says. “It’s often much easier to figure out the ‘lay of the menu’ and see all potential ordering options when a consumer is physically holding the menu versus scrolling through it on their phone.

Blair adds that’s especially true as the number of ordering options and menu items increases (i.e., bigger menus).

“Another common pushback is consumers wanting input from servers on best options on the menu, especially for consumers that are eating at a restaurant for the first time,” he says.

They often assume that using a QR code will replace interactions with servers, although he says he believes self-service functionality could increase the amount of time servers spend helping consumers through options.

“For consumers, I think the biggest benefit is being able to control the experience,” he says. “When using a QR code, you can control the timing of when you get the order in and when you pay.”

As a father, he says he knows one of the most frustrating restaurant experiences is when the kids are melting down, and he’s ready to get out the door, but must wait for the server to do two specific manual tasks – provide the bill and process the payment.

“That process can sometimes take 15-20 minutes when restaurants are at full capacity,” he explains. “If the restaurant at least provides the option to access the bill and pay at the table–including through QR codes–I can get out the door as quickly as I want.”

Beyond that, using QR codes for ordering can also let consumers add items to their order at their leisure, be it another drink or dessert, and likely also reduces the time to get seated.

“Those are some of the bigger benefits for consumers,” Blair says.

Considering the survey information, it appears that consumers will appreciate a useful QR code or other form of technology that enhances and simplifies their restaurant experience, and business leaders can use that knowledge to improve their service offerings.

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