Rise of the Kiosks

If you’ve been out to a Chili’s or Applebee’s recently, you’ve probably seen the new additions to their tables: tablets that allow you to order drinks and desserts or pay your bill without having to call your server over. Similarly, Panera has started installing Fast Lane Kiosks, with plans to have the technology rolled out to all 2,000 units within the next two years. With self-service kiosks making appearances across the nation, are cashiers going to be out of a job?

Easing Labor Woes

As minimum wages continue to rise across the country, many operators look to kiosks as a possible solution to unsustainable operating costs. However, in some restaurants, the kiosks have had the opposite effect on employment. While there may be fewer cashiers, there are just as many if not more employees needed to keep up with increased throughput.

“In fact, in restaurants currently testing our self-order kiosks, the scheduled number of restaurant crew is the same or higher as without kiosks in order to support the needs of our guests,” claimed Adam Gracknik, a spokesperson for McDonald’s Canada.

That seems to be the case at Panera as well, where locations with kiosks actually have more employees than Panera cafes that have not been updated. That’s at least in part because the kiosk-equipped operations now have table service.

If you’re looking to use kiosks to boost your bottom line, don’t worry, there is a bright spot in all this. While you may not be able to reduce your workforce by installing kiosks, it would appear that you can increase sales. Several restaurants have reported a noticeable increase in sales after kiosks or digital apps were implemented. Removing the pressure of social interaction and the potential judgement of their eating habits leaves are two of the hypotheses as to why some customers feel more open to customizing their orders or choosing items they might not feel comfortable pronouncing. Technology can also help remove one layer of possible human error, as the screen will always remember to upsell drinks and desserts.

Software Options

In 2014, a software advisory company conducted a survey to determine what features customers want in a self-service restaurant kiosk. The biggest question most restaurant owners have about kiosks is whether customers would even want to use them. The good news is that over half of the nearly 2,000 people surveyed claimed they would use a self-service kiosk. However, that number fluctuates wildly based on a restaurant’s demographic. If you target a more senior audience, kiosks may not be an investment you need to make yet, as only 34 percent of respondents 55 and up expressed interest in using a kiosk. On the other hand, if you draw a younger crowd, you may want to consider catering to the 71 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds that prefer to use kiosks.

The same survey asked customers what features they valued most in self-service kiosks. The winners? Order customization, pictures of menu items, and the ability to split the bill. The ability to view specials and discounts also ranked highly. Self-service kiosks at the table beat out kiosks available upon arrival by a landslide. This may be because of the pressure to order quickly when a line is building up behind you – a kiosk at the table gives customers more time to ponder their options.

Wave of the Future?

Are we heading into a future in which every restaurant has self-service kiosks, where we are able to order and pay for a meal without ever speaking? Are cashiers going the way of the dodo? Harvard Business School Assistant Professor of Business Administration Ryan Buell, who specializes in technology and operations management, doesn’t think so.

“We’re deeply social animals,” he pointed out in Harvard Business Review. “If you think about the places where we’re truly loyal, these are often places where we’ve had the opportunity to develop a relationship, right?”

Some fast food franchisees where most sales are made using a drive-thru board are resisting the self-service kiosk trend. Some even believe the McDonald’s restaurants that are implementing kiosks are doing it more as a publicity stunt than a way to actually streamline sales. In the end, each restaurateur will need to assess what a self-service kiosk could add to his or her restaurant, and how customers will respond to the change.

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.

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