There’s a lot of uncertainty on the horizon for the American worker today, and not simply because of a changing White House administration. There’s seemingly never-ending talk about how the U.S. has shifted from a manufacturing to service-based economy, with little hope of that trend reversing significantly. But what happens when technology catches up and boomerangs around, with service-based employees able to be replaced by manufactured devices?
That’s precisely the conundrum some pundits claim has already reached our shores, with the drive for higher wages encouraging multiple industries — the restaurant industry prime among them — to automate rather than maintain the labor force it has at a higher cost. For the restaurant industry, however, this claim seems to be in dispute.
With high-profile organizations like McDonald’s, Chili’s, and Panera leading the way in testing out kiosk ordering options in select areas nationwide, one might see the correlation between job loss and a technology boon. But the reality is much more complicated.
At first glance, it seems like a no-brainer. If customers can simply order and pay through a touchscreen interface, why would restaurants need to retain that proportion of their employees whose main responsibility was 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). Far from simply replacing human labor one-for-one, implementing ordering kiosks could actually require increased staff over time because of five key factors.
Electronic ordering via kiosk increases throughput, bringing more orders through your restaurant at a faster rate. This might require staff to be reallocated to accommodate the increased traffic, but your staff is still there.
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 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 customization in dining orders, and customization requires more focused attention and resources in the back of house. The more a customer diverges from the standard order, the more important it is to have staff on hand that can effectively manage that customization. And in the front of house, the server may indeed become more like a table runner, but is still responsible for resolving any customer service issues, like if the order was wrong.
Far from being an expense, the additional labor required in this case is offset by an increase in profitability that add-on items (at .50, .75, $1.00 each) bring to your top line. In fact, kiosks can arguably be superior to live workers in suggesting add-ons without appearing to oversell. Without the social pressure of a standard order and the kiosk offering customers the illusion of privacy, electronic ordering can prove out to drive up spend significantly by comparison to face-to-face ordering. This classifies the kiosk as a money-making device, not a money-saving one, for one’s business.
Of course, the choice to avoid face-to-face interaction must remain optional, as different demographics have different comfort levels with automation. Millennials may statistically prefer the digital interaction to a live person, while Baby Boomers overall still want that human touch in ordering. But reducing the one-on-one interaction to those who specifically need it provides a better customer service experience for every diner. Kiosk ordering can help speed your line flow through, especially when paired with table service that helps prevent a cluster of customers waiting for their order amid other customers still trying to place one.
Kiosks also promote accessibility by being a better option for those with hearing or speech disabilities, those who do not speak English fluently, or persons who experience social anxiety. Suddenly, these guests have a method of ordering that is intuitive, text-based, and can adapt to the needs of the user. This can lead to more opportunities for your restaurant as a whole to service underserved communities without additional training or accommodation.
Ultimately, implementation will be slow. Kiosks and other automation techniques are an enormous expense with projected revenue increases, but no actual widespread statistical data. Restaurants are going to be conservative in how they roll them out, with even the largest national brands spearheading a market at a time for testing. That leaves little wiggle-room for widespread downsizing, but lots of opportunity for transitioning employees 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 involve the front or back of house at all, but will figure in on the road — as delivery drivers.
Programmable drones in civilian areas are no longer a “what if” of some future state. They are decidedly on their way to being a 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 been testing 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.
But will drones work in all markets, regardless of weather or in highly congested areas that may lead to air “traffic jams”? Imagine drones not only delivering your pizzas, but also your Amazon.com packages, mail, and other sundries. Now imagine that in a single high-rise building with hundreds of units on a packed city block.
Self-driving Cars and Trucks
Drones are not the only unmanned craft that risk replacing human capital in the workplace. Self-driving cars may still be in development for personal use, but Budweiser has already piloted this development on American soil with an October test run through Colorado of a self-driving truck, delivering 2,000 cases of beer without incident or accident. For this test run, a driver was on hand in case of emergency, but never once had 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 key to ensuring those most valuable return visits. Whatever combination of employee commitment and technological innovation can have the greatest effect on that factor will be the one that rises to the top in the coming years.
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