Editor’s note: This is the first in a multi-part series on the rise of “phygital” experiences in restaurants. The opening article focuses on kiosks. Part two will dive into in-store, curbside, and delivery.

“Digital ordering” can’t be labeled a development. It’s become ingrained in the purchasing journey. This is especially true in quick service since much of the procurement process is tied to convenience. Guests now expect not only the option to order food like they do much of their retail products, but also the flexibility in how to do so. That can change by occasion, weather, and location. Customers are asking for the option to take their time, browse menus at their own will, in and outside stores, quickly reorder for curbside pickup, or use devices to place bulk delivery orders.

The ability to interact seamlessly between physical and digital experiences, or “phygital,” is one of those themes that’s often invisible in consumers’ lives, a fact that puts pressure on retailers to remove friction behind the scenes. For instance, people experience “phygital” in places like a car dealership or doctor’s office where they engage virtually before showing up. Or connecting with a real estate agent ahead of getting to the house. Everybody books hotels and adjusts trip itineraries before meeting employees at the lobby to check in.

So how has this begun to evolve in food? Tillster’s 2024 Phygital Index report surveyed 1,000-plus U.S.-based quick-service diners about their digital ordering expectations inside and off-premises. “Phygital touchpoints are now the make-or-break factor,” the company said, “influencing customer loyalty, check sizes, and staffing pressures.”

Four main trends emerged from the survey:

  • Increasing demand for personalization and customization
  • Increased interest in in-store and curbside pickup offerings
  • Heightened expectations for consistent and interoperable ordering methods
  • A diminishing reliance on third-party services

Let’s begin by exploring the first Phygital touchpoint, self-service kiosks. It’s no mystery these have circulated throughout quick service. Shake Shack’s systemwide rollout was a constant storyline last year (it’s essentially complete now), and more recently, Restaurant Brands International shared kiosks are headed to Burger King and Firehouse Subs units. In the latter case, chairman Patrick Doyle hinted the sandwich brand could become 100 percent digital within the next two or so years, perhaps sooner. Front counter order points would be ripped out and replaced with kiosks. Burger King in February told investors its kiosk pilot program was expanding to 100-plus franchised locations as digital channels lifted 40 percent in 2023, year-over-year, resulting in a mix of 15 percent. Its “Sizzle” format enables kiosks and in-store mobile order and pickup alongside mobile order and pickup at the drive-thrus (lots of Phygital rally points). Carrols Restaurant Group, which RBI acquired for $1 billion in January, said kiosks bumped average checks and, in certain areas of the country, customers gravitated there instead of toward employees “because it can be faster and that’s just how they like to do it,” then-CEO Deb Derby said at the time.

RBI added corporate stores with kiosks appreciated 28 percent digital mix. “We’re seeing a much better guest reception to kiosks than we might have seen say five to seven years ago in the U.S.,” CEO Josh Kobza said. In some international markets, in-restaurant transactions are nearly run entirely through kiosks.

Tillster’s report showed 45 percent of diners have used a kiosk and 26 percent did so within the past three months. Twenty-one percent expect to use more kiosks in the next year.

Although not every quick-serve, naturally, includes them, the data showed growing usage—and interest—among restaurant goers. Between 2023 and 2024, the percentage of diners who said they’ve used one in the past three months rose 18 percent.

As Burger King, Firehouse, Shake Shack, and others, like Taco Bell, have touted through recent evolutions, kiosks give guests power to explore the menu. And chains, inversely, get the ability to dictate offerings in a way that illustrate core differentiators. They can feature food dynamically, promote specific options, and layer rewards sign-ups, and other messaging into the interactive experience. The majority of kiosk users in Tillster’s survey said they rely on the phygital ordering method regularly—86 percent use a kiosk at least once per month and nearly half do so once per week.

Kiosk use frequency (past three month)

  • At least once per week, or more: 45 percent
  • One to three times per month: 41 percent
  • Less often than once per month: 14 percent

Fifty-seven percent of kiosk users added they wish restaurants had more stations available, compared to 36 percent of respondents who said the same last year.

One in four used kiosks more this year than last, and one in five noted they plan to ramp that up in 2024.

The diversification of kiosk usage

Tillster’s survey found two kinds of kiosk guests: “beeliners” and “explorers.” Data suggested the second was on the rise, with more customers noting they enjoy the ability to peruse the menu and tap customization options. “This gives [quick-service restaurants] an opportunity,” the company said. “Through kiosks, [they] can strategically highlight specific items to customers eager to discover new menu offerings and encourage higher-value transactions.”

“Beeliners” are, as they sound, customers hoping to streamline the process. They flock to kiosks because they don’t want to wait in line or operate at somebody else’s speed. Efficiency is the lead target. In turn, they gravitate toward features like reordering from past purchases and saved payment methods when loyalty programs are tacked on.

“Explorers,” however, appreciate the ability to navigate at their own pace and not feel rushed by others in line or a cashier. They value the chance to redeem and find rewards and consider personalized menu recommendations based on their current interaction.

Top reasons diners who have used kiosks in the past three months prefer them

I can explore more of the menu

  • Year-over-year percentage change: 10 percent
  • 2024 data: 45 percent

Nobody is rushing me

  • Year-over-year percentage change: 16 percent
  • 2024 data: 37 percent

It’s quicker

  • Year-over-year percentage change: 10 percent
  • 2024 data: 34 percent

It’s more convenient

  • Year-over-year percentage change: 22 percent
  • 2024 data: 33 percent

It shows me all the options I have

  • Year-over-year percentage change: –23 percent
  • 2024 data: 31 percent

Easier/more customization

  • Year-over-year percentage change: 25 percent
  • 2024 data: 30 percent

Sixty percent of kiosk users added they were pleasantly surprised by new menu and customization options as a result of using a kiosk. Notably, nearly four out of five diners ordered more items than intended as a result of ordering from a self-service kiosk.

Frequency of ordering more items than originally intended at a kiosk

  • Regularly: 19 percent
  • Occasionally: 58 percent
  • Never: 22 percent

Like any technology, the rise in adoption is elevating the bar alongside it. Today, 83 percent of diners expect kiosks to offer the same capabilities as provided by cashiers—an increase from 77 percent the previous year.

Consumers’ expectations for kiosks are in line with other digital ordering methods, like apps or websites. Access to previous orders and personalized menu recommendations were among the features people assume should be included.

What customers expect to be able to do at a kiosk

  • Customize orders: 81 percent
  • Earn and redeem loyalty rewards: 65 percent
  • Use multiple language options: 41 percent
  • Access previous orders: 40 percent
  • Receive personalized menu recommendations: 38 percent

As Shake Shack has touted often during this race toward kiosks, there are two base elements worth chasing—the ability to alleviate staffing woes while also encouraging larger orders. The brand always has at least one cash register, but adding kiosks allowed it to remove multiples in some restaurants. Now, it can redirect labor and appreciate a lift on ticket sales given how superior merchandising is with a screen. In kiosk units, Shake Shack often sees 75 percent of sales flow through the hardware as well as digital channels. That employee who would have helmed a register before can focus instead on customer service, or prep in the back, etc.

Tillster said it generally sees a 15–30 percent increase in average check size and kiosks appeal to a brand’s most valuable customer; somebody who orders independently, visits often, and is willing to explore new offerings.

Meanwhile, higher expectations means restaurants must remain agile. Diners in the survey said they would be swayed to order via kiosks more often with the help of advanced capabilities and offerings. “Quick-service restaurants would be wise to incentivize kiosk use by appealing to these dual types of behaviors with interfaces designed for quick, efficient transactions, as well as the option for a deeper stretch,” the company said.

Factors that would encourage more frequent use of self-service kiosks

  • Shorter lines: 41 percent
  • More time to explore menu items: 39 percent
  • If I could take my time without being rushed: 40 percent
  • More customization options: 35 percent
  • Exclusive kiosk-only offers: 34 percent
Consumer Trends, Story, Technology