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    The Digital Revolution

  • Technological advancements have changed everything about the quick-service experience—and woe to the operator who falls behind.

    Slim Chickens
    Slim Chickens’ 46-inch digital menuboards provide more room for photos and prices, giving the brand more opportunity to communicate with the customer.

    Mobile ordering is perhaps the most promising technology frontier as far as customer engagement goes, and experts say it’s now a must for restaurants, even for quick-service concepts that compete heavily on speed. Chris Webb, cofounder of ChowNow, which provides apps to restaurants for online and mobile ordering, says restaurants should look to the success of Domino’s app, which has helped the brand build loyalty and increase sales. Customers are demanding mobile, Webb says, because of its ease of use; mobile apps can store payment information and allow customers to order in advance. In 2013, nearly 70 percent of mobile users had placed food orders over their smartphones or tablets, according to a report from the Interactive Advertising Bureau and rewards provider Viggle.

    “It’s convenience,” Webb says. “Unfortunately, restaurants have to compete on convenience. It’s no longer the case where you can just compete on food. It’s much easier to pull out the Domino’s app, pick what you want, and be done in 45 seconds. And because of that, it’s become a must-have for restaurants.”

    A mobile app is just one piece of the Panera 2.0 effort, which is integrating mobile and kiosk ordering as part of Panera Bread’s technological revamp. Panera 2.0, which should be in about 100 stores by the end of the year, is set to completely roll out by 2016.

    In participating stores, the new rollout is helping to alleviate long lines, says Blaine Hurst, Panera’s executive vice president of technology and transformation. Customers can order from their phones or tablets while they’re stuck in traffic or even when they’re in the store. They avoid the lines altogether thanks to tableside food delivery. Kiosk ordering works the same way, allowing customers to skip the line at the register for a do-it-yourself ordering experience.

    “The guests love it. They absolutely love it,” Hurst says. “People don’t like to wait in line. We all know that.”

    But the Panera revamp wasn’t just about upgrading technology—at least at first. Executives wanted more to approach the problem of long lines, especially at lunchtime.

    “We didn’t start by saying we need a mobile app. We did not begin there,” Hurst says. “We started by saying, How do we solve for an improved and enhanced guest experience?”

    Sales in the Panera 2.0-equipped cafés are increasing faster than in other comparable units. And by freeing up some labor at the register, those restaurants are able to invest a little more in ensuring order accuracy and quality, Hurst says. The brand has even added a video verification system to check orders leaving the kitchen.

    Some might fret the loss of human interaction that comes with the addition of self-service technology. But Hurst says Panera is experiencing the opposite. By freeing up employees at the register, they’re able to focus more on quality. Team members now have that interaction at the table, as they deliver orders and any extras, like butter or sweetener, to the customer. Reducing the line by 20 or 30 people with mobile and kiosk ordering also drastically reduces stress for the employees and the guests, Hurst says.

    “I would argue that’s a heck of a lot more personal experience than I get standing in a long line where the cashier is just trying to get past me,” he says. “I think it’s better for us and our customers.”

    All aspects of commercial life, whether it’s self-checkout at the grocery store or mobile banking, are becoming increasingly automated and Web-based. And restaurants that do it right have a huge opportunity to create better labor efficiency, says Juan Martinez, principal and founder of Profitality, a foodservice consultancy.

    “Any time you can take a task and give it to the customer, in the right way, you do it,” he says. “Any concept that’s not looking at customer-operated terminals or online ordering where the customer does the work, they don’t get it.”

    Martinez understands those who take a wait-and-see approach to new technology. But he says waiting too long could force customers to leave for greener, more technological, pastures. Certain technologies, like mobile and kiosk ordering, have already proved themselves, he adds, and restaurants should be willing to act fast on implementing new systems.

    “I’ll give you a phrase: You want to be on the leading edge, not on the bleeding edge,” he says, adding that this reality mandates a careful balancing act.

    “There’s a fine line. You don’t want to wait too long and get left behind,” says White Castle vice president Jamie Richardson. “On the other hand, as a smaller chain, we can’t afford to be the first one in every arena.”

    White Castle is piloting kiosk ordering at one of its Columbus, Ohio, stores, with plans to add it in other stores in the future. Richardson says the goal wasn’t to cut labor costs, but to improve the customer experience.

    As with any purchase, he says, there must be a return on the investment with new tech acquisitions. But sometimes the return is less tangible—think guest satisfaction—than metrics like sales or speed of service. “We’re still learning and finding out how customers interact with it,” Richardson says.

    With the influx of mobile tools, brands are also finding ways to maximize advertising and marketing dollars, primarily through social media campaigns. Milwaukee-based Cousins Subs is finding success with social media efforts that can target specific customers in specific markets.

    “Television and radio aren’t always in front of our guests, but social media and mobile technologies are,” says Jordan Steinert, digital and social media manager at Cousins Subs.

    During the back-to-school season, the 120-unit chain targets college students on Facebook or Twitter. And by using order history, the brand can offer coupon codes for a customer’s favorite sandwich through social media platforms.

    “It’s more personalized and localized to that individual guest,” Steinert says.

    Social media efforts push customers to Cousins’ online or mobile ordering systems. Collectively, the information the company collects from its mobile app, social media footprint, and online ordering helps to both reward and target customers better in the future.

    “We want to be able to take that approach, reward guests for following, but also use opt-in programs to gain more information—first name, last name, preferred store, an SMS list,” Steinert says. “The more they engage, we can gain more data and paint that 360-degree picture of what our guest is and what our guest wants.”