It’s no secret that the U.S. has shifted from a manufacturing to service-based economy, with little signs of that trend reversing significantly. Now service-based employees are facing their own threat — being rendered obsolete by technology.
With high-profile restaurant chains such as McDonald’s, Chili’s, and Panera leading the way in kiosk ordering, one might see the correlation between a technology boon and job loss. But the reality is much more complicated.
At first glance, it seems like a no-brainer. If customers can order and pay through a touchscreen interface, why would restaurants need to retain employees whose main responsibility is taking orders?
The truth is, kiosk ordering — at the bare minimum — requires staff size to remain relatively constant (even if the tasks those employees perform may be adjusted over time). Instead of replacing humans, the addition of kiosks could actually require increased staff over time because of a few key factors.
Electronic ordering via kiosk is likely to increase throughput, bringing more orders through your restaurant at a faster rate. This might require staff to be reallocated or even added to accommodate the increased traffic.
And your back-of-house staff size (and equipment) would need to compensate for more orders per hour and in many cases, table service will then be required in order to maintain a positive customer service experience. Like instituting apps and websites to replace the phone bank for delivery and take-out orders, kiosks merely increase efficiency and promote accuracy in order fulfillment. They don’t replace the human touchpoint most customers want at various points in their restaurant visit.
Kiosks encourage more customers to customize their orders, which requires more attention to detail and resources in the back-of-house. That’s because the more a customer diverges from the standard order, the more important it is to have staff that can effectively manage those changes. In the front-of-house, this could mean the server functions more like a table runner, but is still responsible for resolving any customer service issues, such as a mistake in the order.
Any additional labor required should be offset by an increase in profitability that add-on items will bring to your top line. In fact, kiosks can arguably be superior to live workers in suggesting additional toppings or items without appearing to oversell. By removing the social pressure of customizing an order with a human, the kiosk offers customers a degree of privacy while in many cases increasing their spend. In essence, the kiosk becomes a money-making device, not a money-saving one, for one’s business.
Ordering from a kiosk needs to be a choice, not mandatory, as different demographics have varying comfort levels when it comes to automation. Millennials may statistically prefer the digital interaction to a live person, while baby boomers could still crave the human touch when ordering. Reducing one-on-one ordering interactions only to those who specifically want it provides a better customer service experience for every diner, leading to more business for your restaurant.
Kiosks can often be a better option for people with hearing or speech disabilities, who do not speak English fluently, or experience social anxiety. When done right, ordering by kiosk is intuitive, text-based, and adaptable to a user’s needs. This can lead to more opportunities for your restaurant to service underserved communities without the need for additional training or accommodations.
Ultimately, switching to a kiosk-based ordering system will take time. Kiosks and other automation techniques are a significant added expense with projected revenue increases, but no actual widespread statistical data. Restaurants are likely going to be conservative in rolling them out, which leaves little wiggle room for widespread employee downsizing, but lots of opportunity for transitioning workers from one series of tasks to another to enhance overall productivity.
Still, kiosks aren’t the only form of automation on the horizon for the limited service and casual segments of the restaurant industry. In all likelihood, the positions hourly workers may lose probably won’t impact the front- or back-of-house at all, but rather delivery drivers.
Programmable drones in civilian areas are no longer a “what if” but “when.” They are decidedly on their way to becoming a day-to-day delivery reality, although not without some questions remaining regarding their full-scale viability.
Domino’s is already in the air with drone delivery in New Zealand, using that market to test out the technology. Chipotle has also tested drone delivery of burritos for a limited time at Virginia Tech. In Singapore, drones are already beginning to reach common use, with companies like Foodpanda cutting delivery times in half — from a 60-70 minute average down to 30 minutes flat. If successful, the proliferation of drones for commercial use could mean a significant decrease in delivery driver positions.
Self-driving Cars and Trucks
Drones are not the only unmanned craft that could pose a threat to jobs. Self-driving cars may still be in development for personal use, but Budweiser has already piloted this development on American soil with a test run of a self-driving truck through Colorado, delivering 2,000 cases of beer without incident or accident. While a driver was on hand in case of emergency, never once did they have to take control of the vehicle during the entire 120-mile journey.
What does this mean for the trucking industry? Perhaps a downsizing — not a full dismissal — of human drivers, limiting their scope to in-town driving, loading, and unloading. The bulk of interstate driving can then be left to computer. And believe it or not, unless legislators seek to address the legality of self-driving vehicles, there is no current impediment to their use for either personal or commercial purposes.
No matter what the future holds in terms of automation for the restaurant industry, one thing is absolutely certain: customer service is still the key to ensuring those valuable return visits.