As technology continues to develop, it changes everything around us—including the way we dine, and the way restaurants are laid out. Right now, the quick-service restaurant industry is going through a period of transition. As the smaller fast-casual concepts streamline and offer more competitive prices, quick-service restaurants must find a way to stand out. And it’s the workers in that industry that are going to have to adapt most to changes in the workplace. Technology is set to play a huge part in the future of the industry, possibly minimalizing the need for human interaction or even cutting out servers and cashiers completely. But it also means opportunity for growth, in the customer service aspect of the industry.
Mobile order and pay apps have been gaining traction since 2010. In the last couple of years, they’ve been picking up speed. Companies like Starbucks, Subway, Panera Breads, and Chipotle have been ahead of the curve. Now, other companies are playing catch up. As we’ve seen lately, market leaders are investing tens of millions of dollars to offer their on-the-go service to their customers. Their biggest selling point, speed and convenience. And its “best customers,” who are seeing the most benefit.
The VIP offering provided by mobile order and pay not only extends convenience to the customer, but also creates a relationship with the brand. The result is that a quick-service restaurant’s best customers can interact with the brand in a personalized manner, while saving time. This time savings, shared by front-counter operations, enables restaurant employees the opportunity to build a relationship with casual customers that aren’t familiar with the menu or restaurant concept. Going a step further, those brands that do offer the VIP service may find that most customers will want to enjoy the same convenience. This is not to say that all customers will want to avoid talking with restaurant employees. Rather the opposite. By taking routine order and payment away from the employee, and empowering the customer, employees can spend more time on relationship building.
Yes, there will be brands where some or all their locations will take advantage of the operational efficiency of moving order and payment to the customer. However, there will also be an opportunity to provide better service for those dine-in customers that want to stay. Where we could see an even bigger change is in the experience for those customers. Employees will be able to redirect their time and offer higher levels of service to those choosing to dine in. Perhaps table service is something that will be created, in an environment where it has never existed.
Goodbye Storefront, Hello Mobile Order Only Locations
For years, it has been my opinion that “Mobile Order Only” locations would be created. Just this month Starbucks announced the creation of a test location that solely serves mobile orders. The creation of this form of storefront enhances the experience for those on the go and reaffirms their VIP status. For those customers, convenience trumps everything else. As customers, they know where to go pick up their order. The service is streamlined, and efficiency is king. And customers leave feeling completely satisfied. For brands hoping to continue to build relationships with customers, this will be an opportunity to re-invent the role of the employee. Their time can be spent welcoming customers, and helping to make their experience as streamlined as possible.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Since ordering (and payment) takes place ahead of time, the biggest question for the customer becomes, “Should I stay or should I go?” If customers decide to stay, there is an opportunity for the quick-service restaurant to provide an improved level of service. If the customer decides to go, the most important thing about their experience is accuracy, speed, and convenience. The experience can be likened to a trip to the bank. Customers will have the option to visit a teller, or go directly to the ATM. Those looking to interact and for a human experience can stay, those looking for nothing more—can go.
Looking to the Future
With these expected changes, there’s one aspect that deserves some thought. That’s how the layout of these quick-service restaurants will evolve. In the future, it can be predicted that the food service industry will be more automated. Technology is changing, and will continue to change, the way restaurants are laid out and how customers experience and interact with brands. From my perspective, technology will bring about the eliminator of the lineup for a cashier. The amount of seating in some restaurants will be reduced. There will be a greeter or a host at the entrance, like the entrance of a casual-dining restaurant like the Olive Garden. In addition, the restaurant will be laid out according to the pick-up system. Following the welcome area there will be a series of pick-up windows or wickets, where customers collect their orders. There will be very little square footage needed for the “front of store area”. The most important element, convenience, means customers’ orders will be ready for pickup by the time they arrive. Most notably, the level of human interaction will be decided upon by the customer. Customers will have the option to grab and go, or interact and converse with staff.
The biggest question mark is what this means for workers in the quick-service restaurant industry. There’s no denying the role of the worker will evolve. However, the streamlining of the industry does not necessarily mean lost jobs. What it means is that those jobs will evolve and become more customer service based. Less time will be spent taking orders, because that will be done ahead of time. Instead, the purpose of the employee with be to welcome customers and if they choose to stay, make sure their experience is as service-oriented as possible. Technology has already affected the way quick-service restaurant’s function. From my perspective, this is just the beginning. Perhaps Howard Schultz’s “Third Place” will come to fruition after all.