Restaurant Tech Bridges Gap between Customer Expectations and Habits

By Glenn Withiam, director of publications, Cornell Center for Hospitality Research | December 02, 2013

The U.S. restaurant industry’s use of technology continues to grow, even though not all restaurateurs agree on what technology to install or how customers will use that technology. Regardless of their view of customers’ attitudes, however, restaurant chains have been moving ahead with integrating information technology in their operations, according to a study by Michael White, business research manager for the National Restaurant Association, and Cornell Professor Rohit Verma. Based on that study, in this column, I’ll discuss both the restaurateurs’ view of technology and that of their customers. In some cases, it may be that the customers are moving faster than the industry.

Looking at technology used by nine large food-service chains, White and Verma found heavy use of mobile apps, restaurant locators, and online menus. Ordering and payment technologies are a little less common. In the next year or two, almost all chains will have mobile apps and websites ready to go, but they are going much more slowly on digital payment. The restaurant operators see the potential for technology to improve service speed, reduce processing cost, provide improved marketing information, and gain better revenue management.

How customers view restaurant tech
From the customer’s point of view, technology offers improved convenience, control, and information, as well as better pricing options. White and Verma’s study found that younger guests simply expect technology to be in place, while older guests are mixed on technology, particularly regarding tableside apps. The restaurant operators are also mixed in their view of tableside tech. They were widely split on the question of whether guests would prefer to settle their checks using some form of mobile payment or kiosk app.

A relatively small percentage have implemented tableside tech, mostly for ordering or menu presentation, and tabletop payment is a small piece of the technology action at the moment. Perhaps one reason for this is that the restaurateurs are split on whether implementing technology improves customer loyalty, even though two-thirds agree that technology improves profitability. Loyalty is an important point here, as most restaurants in the study count heavily on loyalty programs to bring in guests both now and going forward.

Tech-savvy customers drive technology adoption rates
One issue that the restaurant industry needs to resolve is the gap between customers’ technology perceptions and operators’ beliefs about which technologies customers would prefer. White and Verma found restaurant customers to be more open to technology as part of the restaurant experience, although not across the board. In a continuing study (now with nearly 1,000 respondents), they found a split in customer attitudes similar to that of restaurateurs. One group of customers are high users of technology, and these people are comfortable with such things as reserving a table online or settling the check using some form of wireless device. On the other hand, another group is not as adept with technology. Even so, the study found that customers are generally willing to accept self-ordering on a tablet at the table or in a kiosk. Nearly all the respondents had used pagers for queue management, and about two-thirds had ordered food online.

The “high tech” customers were more likely to have reserved a table online, and about half of all customers had made an online table reservation. Interestingly, customers viewed the ability to make an online reservation as the technology with the greatest utility, ahead of pagers and tableside payment. Although prior experience and personal recommendations are still the top two information sources when someone chooses a restaurant, online reviews are now third, slightly ahead of published reviews and professional ratings. Social media have been a rapidly growing aspect of restaurant technology. A large majority of restaurants have a Facebook page or will soon have one, and the same is true of Twitter accounts.

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