6 Steps to Better Self-Service

By George Koroneos | October 09, 2008

Food-service providers have been dabbling with kiosks and other self-service technologies for years, but with the exception of airports and convenience stores, the platforms have been hit and miss. According to the 2008 Hospitality Technology Self Service Technology Study, 20 percent of polled restaurant operators either have kiosks or have plans to deploy them during the coming 12 months; 71 percent have no plans and nine percent are unsure.

However, despite the majority of those who do not plan to implement kiosks, this doesn't mean that people aren't using self-service technology. 

Research from the IHL Consulting Group (www.ihlservices.com), a retail and hospitality advising firm, states that U.S. consumers scanned $137 billion in merchandise at self-checkout lanes in 2006, a 24 percent jump over the previous year. Their research also notes that consumers spent an additional $300 billion at self-service kiosks, with the combined dollar volume expected to surpass $1 trillion by 2011.

So why is the restaurant industry so slow to catch on?

When asked about their hesitation to deploy, most operators indicate that kiosks either don't fit into their particular establishment (64 percent) or that there's no guest demand (40 percent). In truth, however, kiosks have significant benefits to the foodservice industry, and in particular in quick-service and fast casual environments.

The best fit
According to most operators interviewed, the key to successful self-service implementation is to understand what customers need. Unless guests know how to use the machines or have used them before, the uptake in use could be very slow.

"Kiosks themselves don't necessarily work in every environment," explains Jeffrey Zurofsky, a partner at  the fast casual sandwich shop, 'wichcraft (www.wichcraftnyc.com). His restaurant explored self-service kiosk options from Agilysys (www.agilysys.com). Though Zurofsky is a tremendous supporter of Agilysys' kiosk technology, his restaurants have since switched to online ordering for self-service, as it's a better fit for their business model. Kiosks, according to Zurofsky, "work best if you have enough room comparable to an airport lounge and have an employee available to watch over and help people with the systems. You'd be surprised; customers need to be trained and that's an ongoing process."

Kiosks seem to be best suited for fast casual locations since these are environments where a server is not always present. In a typical fast casual model, guests pay and order at the register and food is delivered to the table, making for a more relaxed environment.

By using self-service technology, guests could bypass the register line and customize their meal any way they want. Convenience stores, such as WaWa (www.wawa.com) have been using kiosks for years in their sandwich depots. Customers can select anything they want on a sandwich, from the amount of meat down to how many condiments. At Wawa, the standalone kiosk prints a receipt that is given first to the meal preparers and then to the cash register for payment; not much different than service at a fast casual place.

"Fast casual places lend themselves to kiosks because it allows operators to redeploy critical mass of human resources to fulfillment and preparation services," Zurofsky says. "This takes the routine task of taking the order and moves it into the hands of the customer. It's getting really hard because consumers want value for the money and convenience, and they want the food made the way they want it."

Take the plunge
A main cause of kiosk installations falling short of expectations is that operators think the technology can run itself. Rather than fully integrating the self-service platform into a business plan, the systems are regarded as either employee replacements or as speed boosters. That couldn't be further from the truth.

After interviewing several operators that have installed, used, and even moved on after using kiosks for several years, Hospitality Technology has narrowed down a list of best practices when considering and installing kiosks.

1. Integrate the kiosk with the entire POS system. This ensures that all the hardware and software plays nicely together and ensures that orders go from the point of sale, directly to the kitchen display unit in real time. It can also update back office inventory and accounting automatically.

Ask your POS vendor if they offer a menu platform that is designed both for kiosks and POS. Companies such as CBORD (www.cbord.com) have designed applications that can be installed across multiple systems including online sites, cashless payment devices, kiosks and POS.

An integrated cross-platform system will save time and energy when trying to manage expenses and receipts or when it's time to call the help desk.

2. Space concerns are legitimate concerns. While the size of kiosks has dwindled from the big box, arcade game style units of yesteryear, leaner models from companies such as SeePoint (www.seepoint.com) still require a sizeable amount of real estate. Beyond the product's footprint, stores need to accommodate for the person standing in front of the system and the queue that will inevitably form behind the customer.

Luckily, IT takes up far less space. Internet-based kiosks can run wirelessly, and the only additional hardware required is a router that can be hidden from view to beam menu and order information to the central computer or the rest of the POS system. Operators can also hard wire the connection via a single Ethernet cable that can be run through the wall. The only other concern is power supply, which often consists of only one cable.

3. Be ready to deal with technology issues. Restaurant operators, in general, are not trained in kiosk repair so a contingency plan for printer jams and service outages is a must. Unattended self-service units are more likely to have problems than ones overseen by an employee, so it's worthwhile to have at least one employee watch over the systems and offer help when needed.

For multiple kiosk set-ups, consider installing attendant stations. These touch screen units allow employees to watch over and control six or more self-service systems, giving the operator control over credit card transactions, technology issues, or ID verification in case a guest needs to be carded for an alcoholic beverage purchase.

4. Make the kiosks obvious to the customers. Most guests aren't going to come up to an expensive piece of technology and start playing with it. The old adage still holds true that if they break it, they buy it. Use the screen real estate to run graphics that encourage guests to use the system, and walk them through the ordering process. The interface should be intuitive and it helps to offer additional languages that can be chosen at the start of the transaction.

5. Self-service doesn't necessarily mean fast service. "Using kiosks in general is not necessarily faster than an order taker, but customers are under the illusion of speed because they are busy working, not waiting," says Jonpaul Leskie, CEO of Hardee's franchisee Geneva Enterprise (www.genevaenterprise.com). Their speed benefit comes in when kiosks can offer additional points of sale. "Typically we have two POS terminals on the counter. Now we have the two POS and two EMN8 (www.emn8.com) kiosks. When we get busy we now can have four order takers instead of two."

6. Have a pilot phase, followed by market deployment, followed by full-scale rollout. There is no question that self-service technology is a proven technology, but that doesn't mean that it's a plug-and-play solution. Operators are encouraged to use the kiosks on a part-time basis and slowly introduce them to customers. In some cases, self-service might not be a good fit, and it's better to find out before a huge investment is made rather than after.

Still not ready to jump on the self-serve express? Consider the return on investment. Leskie opened up his books for us and showed how two $650 kiosks turned over a yearly net benefit of more than $36,000. According to the CEO, guests using the kiosks spend an average of $1.82 more than guests who go to the cashier. Multiplied by the increased number of customers served and the savings in labor, Leskie's Hardee's are enjoying the self-service experience.

"Today, customer service means you get to serve yourself," Leskie explains. "In actuality, self-service is a form of customer service. In my restaurant, [the kiosks] lets [me] do the work once entrusted to others. What better customer service is there than self-service?"

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