QR codes on restaurant tables. Payments are made without cash or cards. Orders placed by tapping a phone screen. More than a year of social distancing has changed the way brick and mortar businesses work, and the digitized adaptations are likely to remain.

a man sits on a table: Aweke Kifle (left) and Yarad Aklilu ordered lunch on Bluestone Lane in Harvard Square.

© Matthew J. Lee / Globe Staff
Aweke Kifle (left) and Yarad Aklilu ordered lunch on Bluestone Lane in Harvard Square.

In the first few months in particular, the pandemic has convinced many once reluctant consumers to give up cash for contactless payments, and companies – restaurants in particular – are adopting it. At New York-based coffee chain Bluestone Lane, with locations in Harvard Square and downtown Boston, customers routinely order in-store or in advance and request delivery – all via a mobile app.


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Bluestone Lane started offering digital orders in 2019 and was therefore able to quickly make all transactions contactless in March 2020 when COVID-19 became a health threat. While chains like McDonald’s, Sweetgreen, and Starbucks have been mobile-focused for years, the pandemic has prompted others in the industry to quickly change priorities.

Today, more than 90 percent of Bluestone Lane’s business comes from electronic payments. Liam Farrow, head of the chain’s digital team, said he anticipates the shift will be permanent.

“We’re doing better than 2019 and we actually have fewer locations,” Farrow said. “The move to digitization has really changed the business.”

His app enables the cafe to display neat graphics on each item, while traditional menus simply list each option as printed text – a change that has resulted in significantly more business, according to Farrow.

“People eat with their eyes,” he says. “Since they can see the items, people order more because they look delicious.”

Mobile payments have also made transactions more efficient and saved servers the time normally required to move checks back and forth from tables.

Even companies that have long relied on in-person transactions have turned to technology since the pandemic broke out. Customers can expect to find QR codes to access menus in almost every restaurant in Boston, said Natalia Urtubey, the city’s director of small businesses.

“Digitization was really one of the things that unfortunately you wouldn’t do it if you didn’t,” said Urtubey. “It was a really great way to give companies more visibility as it makes them more discoverable and easier to use.”

Restaurants were forced to change their practices much faster than most other types of businesses when the pandemic broke out as they were deemed essential from the start, she said, while retail stores that were closing had some time to relax before the Prepare to reopen.

Rocco’s Cucina and Bar, an Italian sports bar and grill in the North End, started placing QR code stands on its tables in the summer of 2020.

“We couldn’t have menus, so we really had no choice,” said co-owner Annette Zagarella.

Now she wants to keep them – they are practical, adaptable and economical.

Your employees no longer have to wipe the laminated menus that are bound in leather wallets, and prices can be easily updated. The printing costs have also become “outrageously high,” she said.

For these reasons, Kevin Dami, small business consultant at Boston-based digital marketing company Tactical Moves, believes the popularity of QR codes will continue after the pandemic.

Tactical Moves has been helping companies set up QR code menus for years, but demand for the service soared in the spring of last year as inquiries came in from small businesses across the country.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, the technology was difficult to implement because the reading of QR codes was not yet embedded in the phones’ operating systems: Apple first integrated a native QR code reader into its camera app at the end of 2017, and so did Google’s Android phones added the feature in late 2018.

But in 2021, scanning one of the square patterns will be intuitive for many cell phone users and businesses are realizing that.

“People are still asking where we’ve never asked before,” said Dami.

At the point-of-sale company Harbortouch POS in Boston, inquiries from companies for contactless payment systems remain high. These payment methods include using tap-to-pay cards and Apple Pay or Google Pay, which can be used to make in-store payments by phone or smartwatch.

Aside from not having to hand a piece of plastic to the till, customers enjoy the convenience of not having to bring a wallet, said Max Artemenko, managing partner of Harbortouch. This comfort factor makes it likely that businesses will continue to use the technology even after the public health crisis has ended.

“A lot of people of every generation use Apple Pay,” he says. “Customers determine what companies do. So if you have enough people to ask you about it, you will likely get it. “

Urtubey said many cash-only companies had no choice but to adopt credit card transactions almost immediately at the start of the pandemic because many customers didn’t want to process paper bills. (However, Massachusetts law prohibits businesses from discriminating against cash buyers.)

Urtubey said that while there is still reason to be wary of “predatory” credit card fees, allowing card payments is attracting more customers who may not have cash on them. Still, some restaurants have decided to postpone reopening until people are ready to start using cash again.

Some brick and mortar businesses in Boston have rolled out online platforms so they can keep making sales during the 2020 closings, Urtubey said, which has also helped them reach new audiences.

Janet Merriman, a Merrimac-based web designer for more than two decades, said that as the pandemic hit, her clients started making different types of inquiries. Suddenly, websites were no longer just used for marketing, but were supposed to act as communication and sales platforms that can process larger amounts of data.

“For some of my clients, they suddenly had to grow their business in other ways,” says Merriman, founder of Theatrium Web Design, “and other people were just trying to stay afloat.”

She heard from customers who wanted to redesign their websites but were too busy to think about it before the lockdown. Restaurants had to change their menu structures to accommodate online orders, and businesses of all types asked for help posting COVID-19 statements and updates.

Urtubey says communicating and interacting with prospects through various online platforms is essential these days, and Boston has free resources to help small businesses make the changes they need. It hires and matches business development experts with small businesses and hosts workshops on topics such as social media marketing and legal technical assistance.

Part of their goal is also to ensure that the benefits of digitization are preserved so that people can continue to feel comfortable shopping in stores.

“We’re really going to need consumers to show that local shopping and being in the business districts are still a priority for shoppers,” said Urtubey. “Of course we saw how many people went online during the pandemic, but we also saw a return to the pub, which I think is really nice.”

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