Are QR Codes Dead?

Last updated


Daniel Wade


July 28, 2022

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We don't often pay mind to QR codes as a technology that can help businesses, which has led many to believe that it is irrelevant in today's landscape.

In reality, QR codes are not dead; they are more useful than ever. They cater to the current demand for contactless transactions and are crucial to public establishments operating in this post-pandemic world. QR codes may well be the future of transactions, owing to their supreme Versatility, cost-effectiveness, and efficiency.  

Here, we take a deep dive into the Quick marvel. Response technology, highlighting why the technology may just be getting to its prime. The goal of this article is to show you that QR codes are far more helpful than the status quo suggests and why it is the right time to jump aboard the QR bandwagon.

This information is the result of hours of research into the history of the QR code. It touches on its origins, its journey to recognition, and the various ways businesses today use QR codes in their day-to-day operations. It also covers why any company in 2021 and beyond should use QR codes, whether for marketing, customer service, or transactions.


Table of contents

When Was QR Technology Invented?

A Quick Response (QR) code is a machine-readable optical label containing digital information. It is a direct descendant of the barcode, the main difference being that it is two-dimensional. In contrast, the barcode is one-dimensional (can only be read along the horizontal axis).

QR technology was invented in 1994. It came to replace barcode technology, thus the name "quick response." And QR codes are faster to scan, mainly because the information is stored on them horizontally and vertically. Their two-dimensional nature also made them capable of holding much more information than barcodes, primarily as product tags.

It took over a whole decade for QR technology to catch on. The first few proper adaptations of the technology were witnessed in 2011–17 years after the first QR codes were invented. What prompted that delay in adaptation was, primarily, a lack of scanning devices. Here's why QR technology stayed on the shelves for nearly two decades.

Why The QR Code Was Not An Instant Hit

Back in the 90s, QR codes were upgraded barcodes. They stored information that special QR scanners could only read even though they were the newer, faster technology, which didn't make them any more helpful to consumers.

Everything changed in 2011. Apple started manufacturing phones with QR scanners built right into their cameras. Android soon followed suit, and before long, QR codes began to gain recognition on the consumer level.

This was by no means a resurgence, however. Back then, businesses had no idea what to do with QR codes. No one knew how to create or deploy the principles. The few that did fumble important details like QR code dimensions.

When the QR codes worked, they directed consumers to poorly optimized websites that were a nightmare to navigate. Even though corporations were eager to harness the power of QR codes a decade ago; they had the execution all wrong, which is why QR codes stayed irrelevant for another decade or so.

So, what changed? What made QR codes finally catch on?

  • QR codes became easier to generate and deploy.
  •  Businesses optimized websites for mobile devices.
  • A pandemic created the demand for touchless commerce.

A lot changed along the way to make QR codes the technological necessity they have become today. We will talk about the changes that make QR usage go up later on, but first, how well have businesses and consumers adopted the technology? Are people using QR codes?

We discuss that in the next section.

How Many People Use QR Codes?

QR technology has seen a revitalization over the past three years or so, and its adoption seems to be picking up the pace. Today, nearly everyone on the planet carries a QR code scanner in their pocket: their smartphone.

In 2017, World in Data statistics showed that there were one hundred twenty-two phone subscriptions per 100 people in the US. That means there were more smartphones than people, which is undoubtedly still the reality today.  

In 2019, 81% of Americans owned a smartphone (Pew), and 90% of them had internet access (Statista). 91% of people with iOS devices had cameras with QR scanners already, according to the App Store.

By the end of 2019, over 121 million people in the US alone (that's roughly 37% of the population) used QR codes. Statista accurately projected that QR code usage would rise to over 11 million households in 2020.

Going by that frame of reference, it's easy to see just how popular QR technology will become in the next few years. Statistics from Juniper Research shows that over 1 billion smartphones will have QR code support and that 5.3 billion QR code coupons will be scanned and redeemed via smartphones by 2022.

Most of these figures also project an upward trend in the growth of QR code usage. Between 2018 and 2019, QR code usage grew by 26%, according to Blue Bite. Within that same period, the number of scans per object increased by 35%, meaning that more people were aware of the technology and had started to use it in earnest. When it comes to the who, it appears that QR codes appeal more to older demographics.

A 2015 Statista report shows that while the vast majority (roughly 68%) of QR code users are aged between 25 and 54 years, 27% are aged between 35 and 44 years old, and 21% are aged between 45 and 54 years old.

From this information, marketers can extrapolate that older consumers are easier to target using QR technology, possibly because it is a straightforward technology that everyone can understand.

Even so, there has been a constant rise in the adoption and usage of QR codes across the board, particularly in the last couple of years. This is, in part, due to the thorough optimization of the technology, but primarily due to a sudden increase in demand for touchless commerce.

We'll expand on that further in the sections below.

Why Is QR Code Usage Going Up?

Our usage of QR codes, plus the technology behind them, has matured significantly since the early adoption days of 2011. In nearly every industry, QR codes have found a legitimate application that takes advantage of the technology's simplicity and convenience.

QR code usage is going up, and it's not just because the technology has improved tenfold since its inception. The most recent surge in the adoption of QR codes comes in response to an unprecedented factor: a pandemic that has led to the enforcement of strict hygiene practices.

In the pre-pandemic world, QR codes were seen as more of a gimmick than a necessity. Still, restaurants, hotels, bars, and other establishments that cater to the public depend on this technology to keep the business running. That's not the only reason why more and more businesses are falling in love with the simple yet powerful technology.

They Satisfy A Need For Hygiene

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the hospitality industry took a significant blow. Public spaces became high-risk environments, and fewer people felt comfortable about going to restaurants and eateries.

Before the pandemic, a study found that 75% of people would avoid a restaurant if it had bad reviews, particularly about cleanliness. The pandemic was one huge bad review for restaurants globally, and one of the first measures taken to remedy the brunt of COVID-19 was eradicating paper menus.

Pre-pandemic studies proved that the paper menu is often the most germ-ridden object in the whole restaurant. Recommendations from the National Restaurant Association may have prompted a switch to disposable paper menus, but there are a lot of resources, and they don't necessarily solve the problem entirely.

This has led to the rise of contactless QR menus. In lieu of a traditional menu, eating establishments now slap a QR code sticker on each table, effectively solving the paper menu problem while unwittingly stewarding the rise of QR technology.

QR menus are convenient, fast, easy to access, and most importantly, the most hygienic alternative to paper menus. Business owners are compelled to adopt the technology, not just for the sake of hygiene and maximum cleanliness, but to meet consumer expectations, which have shifted drastically since the start of the pandemic.

They're Easy To Create and Deploy

These days, anyone can build a QR code with just a few clicks. QR code generators have made it easy as pie. Compared to apps and websites (even landing pages), QR codes are a cinch. That's why their adoption has been so quick.

The hardest part about creating a QR code is finding a secure service that creates them for you. For example, if you're making a menu, all you need is a spreadsheet with the menu information.

Once you upload this into an online tool, turning it into a QR code takes a click of a button. Then, all you have to do is print it out and place it where it's needed. It's that easy to create one, and if you choose a dynamic

QR code instead of a static one, then you can update it just as quickly. You don't need to update the QR code itself or even the digital information encoded within it. It's nearly as easy as updating text on a website!

The best part is that QR codes are just as easy to use. Since most smartphones come with native support for QR scanners, your customers don't have to download anything. Learning how to scan, even for the most tech-averse individuals among us, takes a couple of minutes at most.

And the fact that you can scan a QR code, whether on a table or a billboard, makes it that much easier to deploy and access.

They're Highly Customizable

The customization of QR codes makes them more attractive to consumers in general, which promotes their use and adoption by customers and businesses.

Like barcodes, QR codes have primarily been black and white for most of their existence. That's not the case anymore. These days, they can be customized with colors, logos, and in different shapes to be more attractive to consumers.

While it may seem purely aesthetic, it's an important upgrade because now you can design a QR code that represents what the customer is scanning.

For instance, a shoe store may have a cartoon embedded into one of their QR codes to signify kids' shoes. Similarly, a restaurant may have QR codes designed according to meal types: main courses, appetizers, desserts, and drinks.

Also, you can embed your brand colors and logo into a QR code to make them look more professional and trustworthy to your customers.

They're Better Than Apps

Paper menus have been completely phased out by the need for businesses to maintain a hygienic environment for their customers. This has heralded an era of digitized customer experiences.

To eliminate the risk of contaminating their customers, businesses are switching to a fully digital front that's contactless yet convenient. Even before the pandemic, major eating establishments were already tinkering with menu apps.

Standalone apps are already standard features with brands like KFC, Nike, Burger King, and other major brands. The common denominator for these brands is that they have the resources to fund high-level app development and maintenance. Many small businesses are also trying to build apps for their brand.

But creating and maintaining an app is expensive and requires a lot of time and energy. Apps need to be updated and troubleshot, which costs money, time, and technical skills. Compared to apps, QR codes are lightweight, cheap, and just as convenient, if not more.

The creator of the QR code doesn't need to code software. Moreover, QR menus don't necessitate the download or installation of software. Customers simply scan the code and get redirected to a menu published on the business' mobile-optimized website.

QR menus can be used outside the hospitality industry too. They can facilitate quick, contactless payments or give consumers a virtual shopping experience no matter the products involved. For many businesses, QR codes create an ideal framework for touchless ordering systems.

They Have A Wide Range of Uses

How you use a QR code will largely depend on whether it is static or dynamic. Fixed QR codes cannot be updated after deployment, but active QR codes can.

For obvious reasons, dynamic QR codes are more versatile and suit several different applications. Commercial uses of QR codes can be seen in the healthcare industry, vehicle industry, and advertising industry.

QR codes can also share social media information, virtual reality experiences, and product information.

They're Powerful Marketing Tools

QR code marketing was one of the earliest uses of QR codes. Its simplicity is what makes it effective. Customers are not required to conduct any substantial interactions with the technology.

Businesses can quickly put promotional information before their customers in a highly convenient and cost-effective manner.

You can quickly see instances of QR marketing on magazines, products, receipts, packaging, and even email. Since they're effortless to create and distribute, QR codes are versatile enough to thrive in a wide variety of placements, including billboards, newspapers, and even clothing.

QR codes serve as great marketing tools because they're easy to interact with. The only instruction needed is "scan the QR code." The rest happens automatically. Crucially, QR technology allows businesses to keep track of scans per code, which will enable them to optimize promotions based on their performance.

Modern QR Code Use Cases

Today, QR codes are used in various applications ranging from commerce to hospitality and even healthcare. Their speed, convenience and affordability allow businesses to cut costs while marketing or providing services to their customers.

Here are some of the common uses of QR codes in the modern world.

1. Social Media

Social media is a steward of innovation and like Facebook, Snapchat and, most recently, Instagram is demonstrating, QR codes have a place in the digital environment. The platforms allow their users to create and share QR codes easily to share social media account handles.

Instagram previously called this feature Nametag, but have since optimized the technology enough so that the user-generated QR codes can be scanned by any smartphone. Influencers are already taking advantage of the technology by putting QR codes on their merchandise to give their accounts more exposure.

Businesses that sell merchandise on social media can also leverage QR codes in this manner. Placing these scan able codes on inventory is a way of promoting the page and, ultimately, its brand. It's cheap and convenient to raise brand awareness using QR codes, especially when your consumers are marketing for you.

2. Shopping

Nike has adopted QR technology in earnest by deploying it in their flagship store, House of Innovation 000. QR codes placed throughout the store facilitates a unique digital shopping experience for Nike Plus Members using the Nike app.

The store rewards Nike Plus Unlocks members whenever they scan specific QR codes within the store. Some of the QR codes are used to download the Nike app from within the store. QR codes can also be used for in-store activities.

For example, customers can scan the QR codes placed on mannequins to order the product in the desired color and size. They can also use Nike Instant Checkout (which uses QR codes) to skip long checkout lines or checkout from NikeApp.

Nike is a prime example of how QR codes should be used to improve customer experience. Giving the customer the freedom to scan and request items or even checkout via an app can improve their shopping experience even when they're in your store.

3. Ordering

QR codes are prominent in the hospitality industry, particularly in dining establishments. Patrons can scan a QR code to get the digital catalog or menu hosted on a mobile-optimized website.  

After placing items in their virtual shopping cart, they can also use QR technology to complete the transaction. On the one hand, submitting an order may create a QR code scanned by an employee to initiate payment. On the other hand, the transaction can be sent straight to the establishment's checkout station.

In both cases, all the customer has to do is scan a code, place their order, and submit it. It eliminates contact and is fast and easy to perform. The establishment can create as many codes as they need, whether for their main menu, deals, promos, or checking out. It speeds up operations, preserves hygiene, and gives the customer complete control over the whole process, which can dramatically improve their experience.

4. Payment

QR codes are also used to facilitate remote payment. When a business charges the customer, a unique QR code is generated, which is then sent to the customer.

The code contains a transaction identifier that tells the scanning device how much the payment is worth and where the funds should be sent. In this instance, the QR code is working with a payment app, which reads the transfer location and initiates it.

5. Product Information (on the packaging)

QR codes started appearing on packaging when GMO products hit the shelves in the US. The manufacturers of GMO products were mandated to provide information about all the ingredients, and QR technology succinctly served that purpose.

QR codes are allowing manufacturers to make a product the packaging even more attractive because all the ingredient information can be compressed into a tiny QR code. This was an essential step in the right direction, because research from The Paper Worker shows that 1/3 of consumers make purchase decisions based on what the packaging looks like. This appeals to millennials especially, who tend to prefer minimalistic aesthetics.

6. Healthcare

The healthcare industry is a hotbed for technological innovation, so it's not surprising that many hospitals have already incorporated QR technology in their patient management systems.

QR codes are used as identifiers, replacing the traditional medical sheet with a far more convenient digital method of keeping up with patient information. These QR codes are simply attached to the patient's wrist.

A single scan can tell a medical practitioner everything they need to know about the patient, from their ailment to the medication they're taking, and even their allergies and complete medical history. The ability to access all this information in just a couple of seconds is a remarkable step forward in patient care, and it gives medical professionals the convenience of using their smartphones instead of walking around with clipboards.

7. Vehicle Dealerships

QR codes play more or less the same role here as they do in the healthcare industry, which is aggregating information into a single, easily accessible portal.

Dealerships don't have to stick with long-written descriptions of vehicle features on their vehicles any longer. This list can be replaced by a QR code that directs users to an optimized website containing all the information they'd like about a specific car.

This can promote sales because, unlike the long sheets, these optimized web pages can contain far more information and go into much more detail. The customer feels more empowered to make a sale when they feel like they have all the information they need.

And since dynamic QR codes can be updated endlessly, vehicle details can be modified easily and quickly to match different demands and markets.

8. Shoppable Advertisements

Significant brands like Burger King have previously launched marketing campaigns with interactive, shoppable ads. Three of their popular Whopper giveaway TV commercials featured floating QR codes that could be scanned through the TV.

Scanning this QR code took customers to a webpage with coupons for Burger King Whoppers, which customers could redeem when they shopped via the company's app.

This is an excellent demonstration of how versatile QR codes are. Burger King used them to increase engagement, promote a specific product, and incentivize purchases via their app—all while giving customers discounted products.

They even offered their customers a chance to experience augmented reality by scanning a QR code displayed during the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards. Those who did got to experience the Burger King mascot and a celebrity on the red carpet in a virtual reality environment.

This shows that QR codes can do just about anything you need them to for your business. At the moment, everyone loves scanning QR codes, and with the proper placement, you can get tons of engagement from your audience.

9. Airports

The use of QR codes most common in Airports.  They are referred to as electronic tickets.  Various airlines enable passengers to check into their flights by scanning their flight tickets. QR codes fasten the security process and decrease the long queues at the airport.

Why Your Business Should Adopt QR Code Usage

We've established that QR code usage is on the rise and that the technology has infinite potential use causes in 2021 and beyond.

The question that remains is why YOU should use QR codes? How are they better or more convenient than the technologies that you're currently using in your business?

There are a lot of good things to say about QR codes, which is why we'll stick to the five most significant advantages of the technology.

They Can Store Large Amounts Of Data

QR codes can store up to 4,296 characters of data. That's storage for roughly 700 words, which is plenty for applications like mobile marketing, print advertising, inventory management, and even contact tracing.

QR codes are versatile enough to suit multiple uses within the same organization, but they're most prominently helpful in marketing. The ability to link them to videos, images, landing pages, and even websites make them ideal marketing tools because they're cheaper, faster, and more convenient to use.

With sufficient data storage, you can modify QR codes to suit any application your business needs.

They're Easy To Scan

Anyone with a smartphone can scan a QR code. For devices without native support, a workaround is available in the form of third-party scanning apps that they can download and use. Whichever way you look at it, it's a straightforward process.

QR codes, when given the appropriate dimensions (at least 2cm by 2cm), are scannable even from as far as 3 feet away. That's hugely convenient, particularly with strict social distancing measures in place.

 They're Easy To Maintain/Troubleshoot

QR codes can be generated without innate coding knowledge. They don't require technical skills or even the installation and downloading of software. And creating secure QR codes is as easy as finding a reliable online QR code generator, selecting the type of QR code you need, uploading the necessary information, and pushing a button to finish the process.

In comparison, similar technologies (apps, websites) require a lot of initial investment and innate technical knowledge, plus they incur maintenance costs. It is also more time-consuming to build an app or website.

They're Cheap To Create and Deploy

QR codes are highly cost-effective. They are created just as quickly as they are deployed. Even the final step, scanning, is just as straightforward.

The fact that they can be used for a wide range of purposes make them the right technology for companies that want to save money, whether they're advertising, optimizing payments, or improving customer experience.

They're Highly Customizable

Their customizability further enhances the multipurpose design of QR codes. QR codes are versatile right down to their aesthetic design.

Businesses are already taking advantage of this to ditch the passé black and white QR codes for brand-oriented designs. Engagement levels skyrocket when customers can attach a brand to the code.

Apart from branding, customization can improve customer engagement using attractive visuals and icons. QR codes can also be customized to represent the information they bear. For instance, a Nike QR code can have the Nike logo or a picture of one of their products, which helps customers look for that specific product.

Everything from the background color to the template to a QR code's eyes can be customized to grab the customer's further attention.

Are QR Codes Dead?


Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

After working for multiple digital advertising agencies and managing hundreds of client accounts and spending millions of dollars via Google Ads, Facebook Ads, Native Ads and Direct Media Buying, I took things out on my own and started SparrowBoost. Now, my tight-knit team and I continue to get smarter and more efficient at running our own campaigns and we share our knowledge with you.

Learn more about SparrowBoost