Are QR codes dead or making a comeback in the US?

QR codes are everywhere in many asian countries. But they are almost nowhere to be found in the US. Why? The following is my Friday afternoon thoughts.

Why did QR codes fail to take off initially in the US? I suspect in part because they were hard to use. You had to get another app to scan a QR code. I remember the first QR code I tried to scan standing in public. I had to find an app and install it before I could open the link. Paaaaainful.

This is no longer the case. A QR scanner is now built directly into the iPhone and Android camera apps. But I believe there is still training required to get broad knowledge of QR codes in the community. I don’t think everyone knows that the funny pattern of dots on a sign is something they can point their phone camera at to open up a URL.

I think another reason for lack of popularity is how they were used. If you put a QR code on say a printed ad where if you scan the code you get more information, it is not necessarily that compelling a reason to scan the code. There needs to be some compelling benefit for shoppers to scan the link.

One potential example of a compelling experience is putting QR codes next to products in a physical store, allowing shoppers to get more information on the product without needing a sales associate. For example, allow shoppers to link from an in-store product to online customer reviews. But is that good for closing sales? Will it increase conversion rates or make the shopper more worried if they see a bad review? It is not clear to me that it is a better experience than having a sales associate talk to the customer to guide them to a better option.

So why do I think QR codes took off in asian countries like they have? Payments. In many asian countries, QR codes are linked to payments. Some countries bypassed credit cards and instead used QR codes to make payments. It became as familiar to shoppers as swiping a credit card is in the US. Put another way, it is not that QR codes drove payment adoption, but rather that payments drove QR adoption.

So are QR codes going to ever take off in the US? The question to me is what problems exist in the US that QR codes provide a great solution for.

Right now in the US with physical store traffic lower, I suspect there is not as much benefit in QR codes. QR codes are great at making a transition from a physical location or printed material to an online experience. Why bother putting QR codes in physical stores when foot traffic is down?

On the other hand, I think in these COVID-19 times new potential use cases could arise. Instead of a touch panel kiosk in a store where who-knows-who has touched it before, QR codes allow similar specialized experiences but on the shoppers phone, avoiding hygiene concerns.

The other area that I am personally interested in is the ability to build small custom digital experiences hooked up to headless commerce backends, but until there is a killer application, I suspect QR codes are not going to see a sudden boost in popularity like they have in asian countries. But who cares? It is not the technology that should be the focus but rather the new shopping experience that is enabled because of a technology.

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