QR Codes and mobile ordering

QR Codes and mobile ordering

18th July 2021

As Monday sees the ‘retirement’ of the venue check-in QR codes, this week I’m taking a look at QR codes, their past, the present and speculating on the role of QR codes in the future of hospitality.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that QR codes were a fun novelty (despite having being invented in 1994, it was only in September of 2017 that Apple introduced a built-in QR reader in the camera for iPhones) and, whilst I’d like to credit my decision to add a QR code to my business cards in 2019 (with a link to my website) was the catalyst for the QR code boom, here in the UK at least, it’s most probably the NHS Track & Trace venue check-in posters that saw the QR code move into the mainstream.

It wasn’t long before many hospitality businesses introduced their own system of QR codes as a quick and relatively inexpensive solution to offering table service in venues – whether to access a digital menu or drinks list or visit a website (or worse download yet another app) to place your order.

Regrettably the urgent need for a quick solution meant that many venues opted for the easiest/quickest/cheapest solution and the market didn’t have time to identify or even define what a ‘best in class’ solution was, hence many of us downloading a new app or signing up for a new provider in each venue we visited.

As we exit the latest (and we hope final) lockdown and all remaining restrictions are eased for hospitality, where does this leave the QR codes on the tables and the websites or apps they send us to?

Several commentators have speculated that QR codes are here to stay, with some going as far as to suggest they offer a (partial) solution to the ongoing staffing challenges the industry faces.

My view is that in the short to medium term QR codes and mobile ordering are here to stay but in a much narrower group of venues than currently. Large multi-site operators have previously developed their own apps whilst start-up such as Flypay have operated for several years and I think we’ll continue to see this where volume and speed/efficiency is paramount or in wet-led venues where human interaction is potentially less of a requirement for many guests than in businesses serving food.

If it’s not too soon to mention the recent Euro 2020 football championship as an example where irrespective of venue capacity or social distancing, I’d confidently speculate that the majority of fans watching the game in a bar or pub would much prefer to order on their phone and have their drinks delivered than queue at the bar away from their friends and risk missing that all important goal (or penalty…) Anecdotally I’ve heard from operators who didn’t offer a digital solution who experienced disappointing revenue on match days as nobody would leave their seats during the match for fear of missing out whilst the staff offering table service found it difficult to interrupt/take orders during play.

Similarly on a busy Saturday night, or whilst catching up with friends there are obvious benefits to using an app/website to order remotely but we need to be cautious and identify those occasions whereby ordering digitally raises new challenges and potential issues for operators.

Digital ordering risks excluding guests. Whilst 92% of UK adults own a smartphone, that still leaves almost 1 in 12 adults in the UK unable to access the technology without accounting for those who are uncomfortable/unfamiliar with using their smartphones for this purpose.

There are also a significant proportion of adults for whom disabilities may also prove a barrier to the use of digital ordering who face increased challenges to order that could be interpreted as discriminatory.

Operationally digital ordering creates issues of it’s own –the need to manage real -time stock availability can be difficult (if not impossible) depending on the level of integration between the app/website and a business's inventory/stock management systems.

Age verification is another huge challenge with digital ordering with most apps/sites merely requiring a tick box approach to age verification (to say nothing regarding intoxicated guests or purchasing for minors) – whilst a trained and conscientious operator would hopefully refuse to serve the drink without following their own age verification procedure, I’m sure there are many occasions whereby a drink is served regardless to avoid the hassle, complication and even unfamiliarity of processing a refund for the purchase.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in the drive for efficiency and perceived convenience, digital ordering can eliminate one of the most important aspects of hospitality – customer service.

Apps and websites can’t recommend or suggest dishes (at least not in a way that can be perceived as genuine), they can’t walk guests through the menu or help with allergens or dietary requirements. From a commercial perspective apps tend not to be as skilled at upselling as a person and they certainly do little to enhance a visit or to make an occasion more ‘special’.

Try as they might, mobile ordering platforms just can replace the human element of hospitality and whilst they have their time and their place in some venues, I don’t consider them a long term solution for the industry and certainly not an adequate replacement for a well-trained and enthusiastic team.

In conclusion, I feel that we’ll see more and more multi-site venues continue to develop their own apps/sites alongside consolidation of the digital ordering platforms until a handful of operations actually define and offer a flexible and consistent solution.

For smaller businesses, independents, and food-led establishments I think we’ll see a gradual phase out of mobile ordering as they overcome the recruitment challenges and focus on delivering the exceptional experience their guests have been craving since the start of the pandemic.

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