Down under, download the app for the lowdown on the specials

7 November 2023

“Sunshine Coast lighthouse” by kahunapulej is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

  • What use is a QR code scan for menus?
  • Sunny Coast Aussies up in arms.
  • Implementation at fault.

Australians have reacted in droves on social media, protesting the increasingly common use of QR codes in restaurants, according to Using vernacular adhering to local style, the outcry began with one disgruntled Sunshine Coast diner’s post, which read:

“Went to a restaurant earlier in Sunny Coast, asked for a menu […] and was directed to a QR code menu on the table. It’s for this f***ing web app called meandu which proceeded to charge a 6.5 per cent venue surcharge, a 2 per cent payment processing fee, and then had the audacity to ask for a tip (10, 15, 25 per cent) as the cherry on top.”

Concurring responses included, “You’re waiting your own table and paying an extra fee for the privilege. It’s f***ed,” and, “It’s also a big stinking FU to anyone old or not tech savvy. All just to [H]oover up your data.” (N.B. a Hoover is a household name vacuum cleaner in Australia.)

While QR codes became commonplace in the service industry during the Covid pandemic, their continued use is, according to some respondents, not in customers’ interests. The original post on social media summed up the underlying feeling that many are “F***ing tired of ‘tech’ being used to solve an ‘issue’ but [it] only [makes] everything worse and more inconvenient for everybody.”

QR Code scanning of images on menus.

“QR-Code” by dadevoti is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

What is a QR code scan?

The issue is not, at its heart, the use of QR codes. It’s the mobile apps that diners have to download, register with, use to place their orders and pay, and what doing so costs the diner extra.

Initially, the process typically involves giving an unknown third-party personal details that include (but are not usually limited to) an email address. You also have to accept an app’s Ts & Cs, which usually contain a variation on a clause that states ‘End-users agree to receive spam emails, marketing messages from the restaurant, the app’s developer and well-funded third parties until  the heat death of the universe…’

In some cases, diners may be interested in such messages, and in others, the app’s use has its advantages: “I actually like the QR ordering because I don’t like people,” said one social post, while another enthused: “I love the QR codes – [I] don’t need to leave the table to order another beer.”

But a local restaurateur, speaking to saidd that his establishment’s costs had been reduced “by around 25 per cent,” by the use of the QR code plus app combination. “We no longer have to take orders, work out bills and manually take payments. […] We now have very few mistakes, saving us time and waste. We can also mark items that have run out instantly on the app by using stock levels, again avoiding the disappointment of [the] customer,” said Jonathan Holmes-Ross, owner of Adelaide’s The Lost Dice.

Mr Holmes-Ross also reiterated a common trope of technology purveyors; that by automating some more mundane tasks, staff are freed up to concentrate their attentions elsewhere. “[…] Our wait staff [have] more time to look after our customers, and the kitchen has excellent order information as the accuracy of the orders is great,” he said.

Who’s paying the price?

While these are advantages from the point of view of an establishment’s owner, the bigger picture reveals several flaws from the customer’s standpoint.

Surcharges levied by the app and its chosen payment gateway are passed onto the diner, and the rates of “service charge” or tip remain at the same levels as when waiting staff are on-hand to speak directly with customers when they order food and drink. It’s also arguable that an integral part of the dining-out experience is the relationship between server and customer – and the quality of those interactions has traditionally determined the levels at which tips are given.

In the case of the Sunshine Coast’s eateries, it’s not the technology that is to blame for unrest among diners. Rather, it’s the implementation that puts the burden of irksomeness onto the customer, rather than the service provider.

In some fast food chains, on-site ordering and payment can be done at permanent electronic ordering points, so diners receive many of the advantages technology brings (up-to-date menus, no wrong orders reaching the kitchen, speed of ordering, no waiting for staff to attend the customer), but none of the disadvantages (surcharges, automatic service charges, the requirement to give personal data). In these instances, technology’s implementation is, on balance, for the customer’s convenience.

While technology provided a lifeline for the service industry during Covid, enabling a minimum of physical contact with other people and so a limited exposure to infection, in the post-pandemic era, its use requires reassessment. In short, it has to answer the basic question: “What is a QR code for if not for disease prevention?”

The answer should always come back to both solid business practices – making ordering more precise, etc – and enhancing the customer’s experience to boost return custom. If QR codes are driving diners away, or sneaking in extra little price hikes as the cost of eating at a place, then, as one Aussie diner put it, “The surcharges and tipping can f*** off.” And so can the technologies that enable them.