By now, everyone’s familiar with online ordering. Pizza Hut claims to have made the first sale over the Internet. Some fast-food businesses take almost half their orders that way. The next wave in restaurant technology is just getting started, though: Electronic ordering at the table.
In 2014, Applebee’s deployed ordering tablets at all its restaurants. The Presto tablet, produced by E la Carte, lets customers order and pay electronically. They can even play games on the device for a small surcharge. Chili’s has also automated ordering, using Ziosk tablets.
At Panera, people pre-order rather than sitting down first, but it’s also found tablet-based ordering useful to reduce lines. It chose an iPad-based system because many people are familiar with Apple’s iPhone and iPad.
Each company approaches the market a bit differently. E la Carte stresses efficiency and the opportunity for impulse orders, Buzztime promises a “mix of fun and functionality,” and Ziosk offers the ability to enroll customers in loyalty programs and let them buy branded merchandise.
With some devices, users can even take pictures of themselves and upload them to social media, giving the restaurant a little free publicity.
The point isn’t to put humans out of work. Speeding up the process electronically lets people order more quickly and lets the server concentrate on bringing food out and handling personal requests. Reducing the wait to order can mean more customer satisfaction and the ability to serve more people, increasing revenue and tips. It can also reduce customers’ anxiety about paying by credit card since no one takes their cards away to process them.
Customers will need time to familiarize themselves with the new style of ordering. Even if they constantly use their phones for purchases, this style of ordering at the table is something new for them, and not everyone is up on the latest tech.
Initially, deploying the devices will result in some confusion, and employees will have to assist customers. It may actually seem slower than in-person ordering for a while.
The software on the device needs to be as simple and straightforward as possible. It’s supposed to make the ordering experience easier, and a bad design could just scare people away. Customers need to be able to undo their mistakes and review their order before submitting it.
However, a mildly skeptical take from The Motley Fool points out some shortcomings in Applebee’s approach. Customers still need to order drinks in person. This is understandable for legal reasons, but since people usually order drinks first, it leaves a delay at the start of the process it’s supposed to speed up. The author also noted the lack of any way to leave feedback through the tablet. The latter point could easily be fixed, but it’s hard to see how restaurants could fully automate drink ordering. An “I am over 21” checkbox just won’t satisfy liquor licensing boards.
Data security is also an important issue. These tablets are Point of Sale devices, and retailers and restaurants often overlook how vulnerable they are. Wendy’s recently suffered a breach that affected PoS devices at 5% of its restaurants. The affected restaurants were franchises that used a different PoS device from the company-owned locations. Security is a particularly difficult issue for franchisees that don’t have the information technology resources of large chains. Franchisers can help the situation by making uniform technology available to franchisees and issuing recommended security procedures.
Keeping the devices behind a firewall and not directly visible to the Internet greatly reduces their vulnerability.
Accessibility is bound to become an issue. The tablets’ software should be flexible enough to let visually impaired users operate them, and servers will need to continue taking orders from anyone who just isn’t comfortable using a machine.
It’s inevitable that electronic ordering will continue to grow in restaurants. The businesses need to look at what their competitors are doing and decide when and how to make the transition. Employees will win if they brush up on their computer skills and plan on adjusting their people skills to the new situation.
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