Food Retail – Automat 2.0

Some businesses want customers to linger. Take casinos. They know that the longer customers stay on their premises, the more they are certain to lose. There is an ancient rumour that the Las Vegas casinos pump oxygen through the air-conditioning to make their customers feel energised, stay awake and, ultimately, to keep them inside for longer. Whilst this is untrue (sorry to disappoint you but it would be a terrible fire hazard), the logic stands.

Many lunchtime food retailers have the exact opposite ambition. They want customers in and out as quickly as possible. Some still try to achieve this the old-fashioned way, like Basil Fawlty, by snarling at dallying patrons. But more and more are enlisting technology to help them achieve their fast-food fast-pay goal.

Credit and Debit cards have been accepted in stores for decades and contactless payment has been widely available through Electronic Point of Sale systems for some time now. With increased competition, the transaction cost for electronic payments is getting lower every year, and you will even find numerous independent retailers using providers like iZettle to process American Express card payments. I’d encourage anyone to check out one of my favourite examples for yourself: ‘Chao! Now’ on St. Andrews Hill just off Carter Lane near St Paul’s – great Vietnamese food and you can pay with Amex.

However, a new development is gaining popularity – Digital Kiosks. They have been around for some time but have only recently reached the standard required by Food Retailers to start being rolled-out with any scale. As a result, many lunchtime food retailers now allow you to enter the store and immediately order your food on a touch-screen, then pay for your meal, before collecting it from the other side of the restaurant with hardly any human interaction at all.

The software comes in various degrees of aggressiveness and some can even be quite pushy; offering the chance to increase the size of your meal, or add bacon, or a cookie at every step of the process. It seems to draw inspiration from ‘Father Ted’ and takes a ‘Mrs. Doyle’ approach – Would you like a side of fries with that? Ah g’wan… You will, you will, you will. G’wan, g’wan, g’wan!

However, most of these programs strike a balance and offer additional items, side-dishes and customisation without trying to force them on the customer.

There are some excellent examples of this model in action now – amongst others, Burrito Mama and Toss’d have very slick systems in place. Certain McDonald’s restaurants in the UK have been used for trials of the Digital Kiosk which is now being rolled out in the US. Of course, Digital Kiosks can mean a restaurant is able to operate with fewer staff and therefore make large savings on payroll costs, but McDonald’s CEO, Steve Easterbrook, has been careful to steer conversation away from job losses:

“it’s not actually meant as a labor replacement. We can just reapportion that labor into more service-orientated roles that we think the customer will benefit both ways”

To be blunt, I don’t believe Steve. What other “service-oriented roles” is he possibly talking about?! It’s obviously an opportunity to cut the number of till-operators at McDonald’s in the future. It is one step closer to a triumphant “revival” of the never-quite-successful Automat – the hybrid restaurant/vending-machine model that has been tried around the world from the 1900s to the 1980s (the first Automat in the US was opened in Philadelphia by Horn & Hardart in 1902) and can most notably still be found in the Netherlands thanks to the FEBO brand.

Another of the huge benefits of the “pick, pay then take-away” model is that the retailer is taking orders and money as early as possible in the customer transaction lifecycle. Customers must part with their cash as quickly as possible and then wait inside the store to collect their orders. This means there are fewer queues lined up outside shops and the Digital Kiosk retailer doesn’t lose out on those patrons who can’t bear to wait in line to place their order. Of course, customers still have to wait at some point, but they have already paid for their food so they aren’t going to impulsively change their minds and buy their lunch next-door.

In the evolving world of digital retail, reducing “Basket Abandonment” is one of the highest priorities. There is also something less annoying about waiting after you have paid. Psychologically it’s easy to understand that you need to wait for your nice food to be lovingly prepared… but much harder to deal with the emotions of “why won’t someone just take my order already?!”. Excessive waiting times can leave an even deeper scar and might mean you lose a customer forever, rather than just on the day – Tech company Box Technologies and processor manufacturing giant Intel conducted a survey of 2000 people and found that 70% of UK customers said they were unlikely to return to a store if they were made to wait in a long queue on their last visit.

So, Digital Kiosks are here and I think they are here to stay… but what will be their next level of evolution…?

How long until facial recognition technology will let me walk into my favourite lunchtime fast-food restaurant, be recognised by the Digital Kiosk and then offered my ‘usual’ meal, which is then automatically debited from my connected bank account when I walk out of the store?