At many restaurants, a physical menu might be considered a bit of a vintage find.
Half of full-service restaurants in the US now use scannable QR codes, according to the National Restaurant Association. The contactless technology popularized during the pandemic allows customers to pull up digital menus on their phones and order without a server – a convenience that privacy experts say comes with a potential downside.
The New York Times reported on Monday that QR codes have increased businesses’ ability to track and analyze customer behavior, with some apps collecting personal data such as order history, emails, and phone numbers.
Databases created from the data can then be used for marketing promos such as personalized discounts or recommendations, according to the Times.
Activities valued for their intrinsically offline nature – such as eating out or grabbing drinks with friends – are now becoming “part of the online advertising empire,” Jay Stanely, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU told the Times.
Jason Buffer, a marketing manager at 230 Fifth Rooftop Bar in New York City, told Insider that QR codes have helped the bar stay open with less waitstaff as it struggles to find new hires during the labor shortage.
“I think it’s just going to get more and more towards the digital side,” Buffer said. “I think we’re going to have less and less sort of human interaction.”
Technology has helped minimize COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the pandemic. However, experts are concerned that some developments, such as the rapid adoption of QR codes, could compromise privacy rights.
“There have been disease outbreaks throughout human history, but never one that has taken place in the era of high-tech tracking tools and ‘big data,'” Stanley wrote on the ACLU website last May.
Perhaps of utmost importance to restaurant owners is the money QR codes can save businesses hit hard during the pandemic. According to Cheqout, a QR ordering and payment system, the digital menus can help save up to 50% on labor costs, the Times reported.
While convenient and low cost, some service workers are beginning to fear that the black-and-white squares could eventually replace their jobs.
For Americans, early July marks Independence Day. This year, it also marks independence for hospitality workers.
A record number of hospitality workers are simply quitting their jobs with no intention of ever going back, declaring a certain kind of independence. And those still on the job just gained independence from daily housekeeping as Hilton announced this week that the service will only be performed upon request, Travel Weekly reported.
As hotel stays plummeted in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, daily housekeeping was one of the first services to be cut, but even as travel revived, it’s not coming back. It’s part of a wider trend within hospitality, the same publication previously reported, fueling the rise of third-party operators like New York-based Butler Hospitality, a “ghost kitchen” for room service. It’s one of the starkest examples of how the economy of 2021 will be different from the one of 2019.
The issue comes down to staffing. In March and April, as a record number of workers were quitting their jobs, the quit rate for hospitality workers actually increased, along with job openings. That means hospitality firms were trying their hardest to hire just as more of their workers were deciding to leave.
As Bloomberg Opinion columnist Conor Sen wrote on Twitter: This is a job that just “won’t exist in the future because it’s uneconomical.” In other words, you’re going to have to make your own hotel bed.
Here’s what today’s economy is finding it just doesn’t need.
Daily housekeeping service and breakfasts at hotels
Before Hilton’s announcement that housekeeping was a thing of the past, Baird analyst Michael Bellisario told The Washington Post that many hotels were considering permanent cuts to a range of services, including cleaning but also free breakfasts.
The new American consumer doesn’t mind too much, as reflected by an August 2020 survey by the American Hotel and Lodging Association. Almost two-thirds of travelers said daily housekeeping should be done without.
After the pandemic, contactless is what travelers want. Insider’s Michelle Gross reported in July 2020 that technology and safety will be paramount to the future hotel experience. Vanessa Ogle, CEO of hotel technology company Enseo, said, “Technology will be the bridge that enables and manages safety and cleanliness procedures and communicates those procedures to guests as well as associates.”
A Hilton spokesperson told Insider that daily housekeeping is available “upon request” in the US and will be automatically done on the fifth day of an extended stay. Visitors to the Hilton brands Waldorf Astoria, Conrad and LXR properties will still automatically receive daily housekeeping.
Menus at restaurants
The QR code could be the ATM machine of our day. Before ATMs, people would wait in line to get money out from a bank with the help of a bank teller. Today, many restaurants don’t use a physical menu, but instead instruct guests to access it via phone from a laminated QR code on the tabletop.
More automation means less cashiers, too, so be prepared to wait longer to pay for the food that you ordered on your phone. With the persistent rising trend of ordering to-go, there’s a chance you’ll have to wait for the restaurant staff to sort through their flood of online orders first, too. You could also end up eating more. Insider’s Grace Dean reported diners could feel less judged, and end up ordering a lot more food.
Dressing rooms at retail stores
During the year of lockdown, ecommerce took off and looks to be holding its gains. A report this week from a Deutsche Bank team led by Senior US Economist Brett Ryan found the online shopping trend that accelerated in 2020 “appears to be holding onto the pandemic gains,” meaning that shopping for clothes online could well be a sticky habit.
At the same time, Ryan’s team found consumer spending well above pre-pandemic levels for three straight months. That means a lot fewer brick-and-mortar stores where you can walk in and physically try on clothing. At the start of 2021, Coresight Research predicted 14% more store closures this year than last, meaning up to 10,000 stores will disappear.
Instead of more visits to more stores, think a lot of cardboard boxes piling up at your door instead. And probably a lot of returns of clothes that don’t quite fit.
[Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct a reference to Butler Hospitality as a “ghost kitchen” third-party operator, not a room-cleaning service.]
QR codes – or “Quick Response” codes – are square-shaped barcodes that can be scanned by mobile devices. They are used for a variety of applications, from pulling up a restaurant menu to directing people to a podcast.
QR codes can also be used in wedding invitations to direct guests to the wedding website, where they can RSVP and find information on the venue, hotel options, and the registry.
Creating a QR code is a relatively straightforward process, and it can be done on a computer or on your smartphone. Here’s how it’s done.
How to create a QR code with QR Code Generator
There are many QR code generators to choose from. Here’s a step-by-step guide using a website called QR Code Generator.
2. Enter the URL of the website you want the QR code to send people to. Alternatively, you can also enter text or upload a file (perhaps to a flyer you designed or to a restaurant menu).
3. Optional: You can also select a frame, change the shape and color, or add a logo to customize your QR code.
4. When you’re finished, click Download to save your custom QR code.
5. After you hit Download, a pop-up will appear asking you to create a free account, but you don’t have to create an account. Just wait for the QR code to finish generating and it will appear in your downloads momentarily.
As your list of vaccinated acquaintances grows, so, too, may the urge to eat with them.
Of course, outdoor dining has been an option for some during the pandemic, and it still is. But with warm weather around the corner and loosening COVID-19 restrictions, opportunities for al fresco dining might be more frequent and tempting. That’s why staying safe if you choose to dine outdoors (or order for pickup) is more important than ever.
Research published by the CDC has shown that opening restaurants to on-premises dining, including outdoor spaces, was linked to increased COVID-19 rates in the months following. Another investigation of 11 US healthcare facilities in 2020 found that COVID-19 positive adults were twice as likely as those who tested negative to have eaten at a restaurant in the two weeks before their illness cropped up.
Still, there are ways to stay safer when choosing outdoor dining.
Outdoor dining safety tips
Not dining out is the safest option of all, and sure enough, the CDC recommends avoiding events and gatherings altogether. But they also break down the safety of dining scenarios by varying degrees of risk.
Drive-thru, takeout, and delivery options are considered the lowestrisk, while the highest risk goes to indoor dining on-premises with seating spaced less than six feet apart. Eating outdoors with tables spaced apart six feet falls somewhere in the middle.
While having food delivered to your home is safer than ordering for pickup or outdoor dining, if you opt to do outdoor dining or curbside pickup from a restaurant, here are some additional tools to help you stay safe.
Get COVID exposure notifications when outdoor dining
Several states have opted into partnerships with Apple and Google’s technology for COVID-19 contact tracing. Health authorities that use this application programming interface (API) have made their own Android apps, which you can find in the Google Play Store, if available in your area. Apple users have a more streamlined system thanks to the built-in COVID exposure notification tool for iOS devices.
If you download the app for your area or enable notifications on your iOS device, you must opt-in to the notification system. Once that’s done, your phone and the phones of others who have opted-in to the service communicate through Bluetooth using random, frequently changing IDs. The app continuously checks its list of IDs against the random IDs associated with positive COVID-19 cases.
When someone with an ID linked to a positive COVID-19 test is in your immediate area, you’ll be notified of your exposure with further guidance on how to stay safe. This is useful for knowing if you were exposed to someone with COVID-19 before making plans to eat out, as well as being alerted if you come into contact with someone during an outing.
Use social distance apps when waiting in a line for pickup or outdoor dining
From the beginning of the pandemic, health authorities and experts have maintained that individuals not from the same household should remain six feet apart at all times. But what is six feet, anyway?
A handful of Android and iOS apps aim to help make that clearer, so while you’re waiting in line or even dining at a table, you know whether you’re keeping a safe distance – and others are keeping a safe distance from you. One such app for iOS users is Social Distance Training. Designed for students and teachers, this app can give a clearer picture of your proximity to someone, using a holographic person to create a virtual distance simulation. It won’t tell you in real-time how close you are to someone, but it does offer a sense of how far away six feet feels for when you are standing in a restaurant’s pickup line.
Android users may prefer to use Sodar by Google, which relies on WebXR on Chrome and your smartphone’s camera. Available only through Chrome on Android devices, this augmented reality tool creates a two-meter radius ring around you – using the recommended distance of at least six feet – to help you follow social distancing guidelines. Just go to the Sodar by Google website, use your phone to scan the QR code, and you’re ready to head out.
Find parks using Google Maps “Explore” to switch up your outdoor dining location
For those inclined to take “outdoor dining” literally, Google Maps is good for so many things – including finding a park to eat in safely once that pickup order is paid for.
If you’re in an unfamiliar place, Google Maps “Explore” feature can locate general categories of places nearby like “gas stations,” “post offices,” and yes, even “parks.” You can use it on the desktop site, or Android and iOS apps.
This feature isn’t available everywhere, but it can be a quick way to get out of a crowd for a quiet and socially distanced meal surrounded by nature. Here’s how to use it.
Use delivery apps and apps like CareFull
If you’re lucky enough to live in the Greater Boston or NYC area, the newer CareFull app – available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store – can help. Designed with COVID-safe eateries (and diners) in mind, CareFull lets you search for local establishments, see what safety precautions they’re taking, and read and leave safety reviews for any given restaurant. The user-friendly layout makes it easy to select a restaurant based on safety.
If you don’t live in either of those two areas, consider ordering pick-up with a restaurant-friendly service like ChowNow. This platform doesn’t receive a commission on orders like other popular delivery apps, meaning more of your money goes directly to the local establishments you’re ordering from.
New Yorkers also have Spread, a newer commission-free food delivery service that saves for customers and restaurants. The app sends you texts with exclusive promotions from takeout and delivery restaurants in your neighborhood. You can then enter those promotions on the restaurant’s site – cutting out the extra service fees that come with delivery app alternatives.
Use QR codes to order while outdoor dining
Many might already be familiar with this kind of barcode, which a smartphone can scan for many purposes. Restaurants have put them into action on outdoor tables or in storefront windows for would-be diners to read menus – no contact with a physical menu passed through other’s hands needed. Some restaurants even allow for ordering right from the menu.
Newer models of Android and iPhone have QR scanners built into their camera apps. Here’s how to use it.
Choose contactless payment options while outdoor dining
QR codes are handy, and contactless payment options with them are even handier. Some restaurants allow ordering and payment straight from the menu you’ve pulled up on your phone.
That includes credit cards like Apple Card or online payment systems like PayPal or Google Pay. Contactless payment minimizes the surfaces touched by a server handling a credit card or cash, keeping both parties safer. It’s also a precaution, like several of those listed, that you can verify ahead of time with a quick phone call.
Use UV light sanitizers to keep your outdoor dining flatware clean and avoid using plastics
If you want to cover all your bases in reducing risk while dining at a restaurant, you can take sanitization to the next level with a UV light sanitizer. It’s perfect for small items – cards, keys, sunglasses, even silverware – while you eat.
Enclosed, battery-operated UV light boxes meant for phones are generally the most effective and safe, with UV wands being less so.