Are consumers ready to eliminate all human interaction when they visit restaurants? Fast-service restaurant owners and operators might be surprised to learn that many guests from all demographic groups are ready to take this dramatic step, with one specific sub-group voicing a resounding “yes!” Due in part to COVID-19, what was once considered a far-fetched idea – eliminating human contact when ordering and receiving a quick-service restaurant or quick-casual meal – now appears to be the consumer’s expectation. for the future.
Before we explore consumer sentiment towards automation, however, let’s reflect on how we got here.
The twists and turns of COVID-19 have forced restaurant owners and fast-service operators to rethink operational and customer-facing technologies, moving towards drive-thru addiction and embracing even more delivery options, investing in automation. and reducing human interaction. These advances have proved doubly beneficial as labor shortages followed quickly in the wake of strict health and safety protocols.
As useful as the initial technology investments were, the increase in drive-thru usage–which has skyrocketed 43 percent from April 2020–highlighted the value of moving cars through this channel more quickly, accurately and efficiently.
According to a online survey conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of a global payments company that helps enable commerce for multi-unit restaurant brands, 65% of respondents who visited a drive-thru in the previous six months had an unpleasant experience and attributed it a staff shortage (26 percent), long lines (30 percent), poor staff behavior (36 percent), and other reasons.
Demographics and the desire for automation
Nearly half of respondents said they would be willing to eliminate all human interaction when visiting a fast-service restaurant, assuming orders are received and fulfilled quickly and accurately. The move to full automation will take time, but the fact that half of the people visiting the drive-thrus are ready to completely eliminate human interaction from the meeting suggests that more people than ever are prepared for contactless experiences.
As fast-service restaurant owners and operators consider how to invest capital in 2022, understanding which customers are open to automation can help them make more informed decisions. Here are six steps to help fast-service restaurants understand their customers better:
- Giving a resounding “yes” to automation were male “geriatric millennials” and Generation X youth between the ages of 35 and 44. 70% of this group said they are willing to eliminate all human interactions in the drive-thru.
- People between the ages of 18 and 34 are more likely to embrace automation than any other age group (62% are fine with eliminating all human interactions)Overall, men are more likely to want full automation (52% of men versus 46% of women).
- There is a positive correlation between full automation and people having children. 63% of people with children under the age of 18 say “yes” to eliminating human interaction versus only 40% of those who have no children in that age group.
- Openness to automation is positively correlated with income. Those earning $ 100,000 or more are more likely to want automation (56%) than those with lower income levels (46% for those in the $ 50,000 to $ 99,900 income bracket). Among those earning less than $ 50k, the percentage drops to 45%.
- Regionally in the United States, those in the Northeast and South had the same attitude towards eliminating human interaction in the drive-thru (54% were open to full automation). In the West, that number drops to 48%, but it’s the lowest in the Midwest (42% is open to automation).
The reasons people want automation vary widely, driven by concerns about speed of service (42%), health (31%), and a general desire to avoid human interaction (32%).
The next technological evolution for fast service restaurants
The desire for more automation begs the question: What investments can fast-service restaurants make to deliver a smoother, contactless experience?
Drive-thru vision technology that helps fast-service restaurant operators better monitor what’s happening in the drive-thru is a revolutionary investment that many are starting to experiment with today. This technology queues cars at the POS for line break, provides animated visualizations and enables real-time digital interactions on the menu board. The technology, which swaps magnetic ground loops for camera systems, also gives fast-service restaurant staff a true picture of driving times, while improving the customer journey. As video technology tracks cars and sorts them throughout the entire experience, digital menu cards can be reused for upselling during line break operations. Better yet, the technology can automate two-lane merges and increase transactions.
AI-enabled voice sorting with natural language processors is another technology on the eve of widespread adoption. Voice ordering robots can make upsell recommendations, which are displayed on drive-thru digital menu cards. When the customer orders, the text-to-speech functionality automatically places the order in the POS. (Of course, a real human can shut down the system at any time if a customer needs assistance.)
These are just a few examples of the technology that is starting to gain ground among the biggest fast-service restaurants. Other areas of focus include kitchen automation, back office automation, and intelligent employee scheduling to account for new workforce expectations.
The journey to a completely contactless experience
Achieving full automation is a process, and many fast-service restaurants are understandably moving in that direction with careful deliberation and intense pilot programs. Owners will need to make decisions about the right balance of technology and human interaction based on their individual preferences and brand identity. One thing is certain, however: Consumers and their beloved fast-service restaurant brands aren’t going back to the pre-Covid-19 days. The habits they’ve adopted over the past couple of years seem to last over time and will continue to feel more comfortable with automated offers that are well executed, easy to use, fast, and protect their health and safety.
Chris Siefken, head of technology, Xenial, a global payments company, lives at the forefront of innovation, having led the development of consumer-facing technologies for several companies. She currently leads the teams that produce the technology used by recognizable corporate restaurant brands around the world.
He has around 20 years of technology experience and most recently was CTO at Beanstalk Data building loyalty and marketing applications for the fast food industry. Chris holds a BA in Applied Philosophy in Computer Science from St Andrews University.