Using your smartphone at restaurants has become the standard, and sometimes the only, way to order food at eateries in China. Customers scan the QR code displayed on their table and can place an order on their smartphones right away without assistance from waitstaff. 

To access the ordering page and digital menu, customers are often required to follow the restaurant’s social media page. Oftentimes physical menus are not in sight; some restaurants won’t provide them at all. 

While some customers view mobile phone ordering as an efficient innovation, many still prefer browsing a physical menu and in-person ordering. Aside from feeling impersonal and intrusive, requiring food orders via phone also places the elderly and the digitally unskilled at a disadvantage.

In response, Nanjing Consumer Association said last week that consumers have the right to say no to mandatory phone ordering, and restaurants should offer services that all customers can access. As a government-backed organization, consumer associations in China handle consumer complaints and work with regulators and law enforcement to protect their rights.

“Services without options encroach on consumer rights,” (our translation) Wei Cao, deputy secretary general of the Nanjing Consumer Association said in an interview (in Chinese) with China National Radio.

In late November, China’s State Council introduced a set of measures aimed at bridging the technology gap for seniors. Specifically, the guidelines require the technology used in existing services including transportation, consumption, and healthcare be evaluated to guarantee accessibility for the elderly. The guidelines also encourage the development of tech innovations aimed at seniors.

Boon for business, bad for user privacy

For restaurants, the smartphone ordering system is more cost efficient—it’s cheaper than making physical menus and saves on manpower. It also helps speed up the ordering process, thus allowing more customers to dine during busy hours. 

Having customers place their orders via smartphone can save restaurants about 30% of their labor costs, Yu Xuerong, president of the Jiangsu Catering Industry Association, said in the report.

It has also proven a boon for business marketing. In order to access a menu, diners are frequently required to “follow” restaurants on social media and subscribe to promotions, driving down marketing expenses while boosting user engagement. 

Those cost savings can come at the expense of user privacy. Customers are often required to fill out personal information such as names and phone numbers, and agree to share their locations, which helps businesses collect user data, analyze what dishes are more popular, and raise prices accordingly.

Felix Lee, a frequent restaurant-goer in Beijing, doesn’t like ordering on his phone at restaurants, even as a digitally savvy millennial. 

“It deprives my freedom to subscribe to pages at my own will and I am annoyed by their occasional pop-up ads,” he said. 

Lee normally unfollows the restaurant pages to unsubscribe from the promotions as soon as he completes his order. 

But for the elderly and the digitally unskilled, requiring food orders via smartphone is more than a nuisance and unpleasant privacy invasion. 

According to a report by the China Internet Network Information Center, there were 463 million Chinese not on the internet as of June. They are nearly evenly divided by location: 43.8% live in urban areas and rural residents account for 56.2%. 

Increasingly widespread mobile adoption has marginalized this segment of China’s population. Some businesses have even transitioned to mobile-only ordering, and refuse to take cash. 

In November, an elderly woman was denied the ability to pay in cash for her medical insurance. She was told to either pay on her phone or have a relative help her, according to a video posted to Chinese microblogging site Weibo. The video attracted more than 23 million views and 20,000 reposts, spurring netizen backlash against the bank. 

The same month, a video of a 94-year-old woman being propped up by family members in order to activate face recognition for her social security card at a bank in Hubei province went viral on Weibo. It sparked discussions about the burden forced upon the elderly by increasingly digitized services and the technology gap.

Restaurants need to develop and advance digitally to cater to customers using more efficient methods, while maintaining service channels for those accustomed to traditional ways, Yu of the Jiangsu Catering Association said.

Covid-19 widens technology gap

The Covid-19 pandemic has further compounded the technology gap. Essential information and services such as opening hours for public places and reservation systems at hospitals require using the internet, while digital health codes are required to enter public spaces. Digital reservation and registration is often required at tourist sites as well. 

An elderly man over the summer in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, and another senior citizen in Fushun in nearby Liaoning province earlier this month were barred from boarding buses because neither had a smartphone to scan the health code required for entry, according to Chinese news reports.

Seniors are often forced out of such digital checkpoints, and vital tasks such as hospital visits and Covid-19 tests commonly require online reservations during the pandemic. Chunhui Wang, professor and economist with Zhejiang University said in an interview (in Chinese) that senior citizens need to receive digital education while guidance and assistance should also be provided to those in need for mobile payments, health code scans, and digital reservations.  

Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Yu Xuerong of the Jiangsu Catering Industry Association said restaurants could save 30% of labor costs through marketing and promotions, rather than through the practice of placing food orders via customer smartphones.

Yue Sun is a Beijing-based journalist covering Chinese tech giants, e-commerce trends, online culture, and other cool things about China. She holds a Master's in Journalism from Indiana University and...