Online ordering, apps and electronic devices are dominating the food industry as convenience and speed become more and more important to this generation of consumers.
According to the Huffington Post, “In just five years, the number of online orders has skyrocketed, doubling from around 403 million in 2010 to 904 million by May 2015.” This phenomenon is propelled by the exponential growth of food-delivery services, causing online food ordering to overtake traditional telephone orders for the first time. But as human interaction is removed from the experience of eating out and grocery shopping, is customer service taking a hit?
Veteran franchisee Freddie Wehbe opened the world’s first completely digital Domino’s Pizza Theater on Oct. 5, expanding the breadth of technology that locals are using to order food.
“There are plenty of Domino’s Pizza Theaters out there,” Wehbe said. “The difference with this is you have to order with a digital device, whether it’s dine-in or drive-thru.”
The new addition to Wehbe’s lineup of pizza restaurants features an “app-thru” rather than a traditional drive-thru; indoor and outdoor outlets for device charging at every seat; a tablet that takes orders from customers who have no pre-ordered on their own device; and televisions viewable from every seat.
“When we were designing this store we did a lot of focus groups to learn about what our customers want,” Wehbe said.
Fifty percent of Domino’s sales nationwide are made through digital orders, according to the company’s website. In Gainesville, that number jumps up to 70 percent, with about 85 percent of all delivery orders coming in digitally, Wehbe reported, which is why Domino’s decided to test this completely digital prototype concept.
“It’s the future,” he said. “Very few customers order digital, and Domino’s’ dedication to technology is what differentiates the pizza restaurant from other QSRs (quick serve restaurants) in the market.
“We have more IT folks working for us than non-IT folks,” he said. “That’s kind of amazing in a way. I think we’re an IT company that happens to sell pizzas and chicken and sandwiches. I’m glad as a franchisee that my corporation took that lead and found the right folks to design the technology to be user-friendly.”
Chili’s Grill & Bar patrons are used to technology permeating the dining experience. According to The Washington Post, the fast casual restaurant installed 45,000 tablets at more than 800 company-owned locations during the first half of 2014.
Christina Holder, 22, has been working as a hostess at the Chili’s on Archer Road since April 2015. She said that the tablets, called Ziosks, “allow customers to view and order certain items, such as alcoholic beverages and desserts, as well as play games, redeem points and pay their bills.”
Holder said she thinks that customers feel more connected with technology because it allows them to customize their dining experience.
“A lot of times, customers will come in and assume that they can order their meals on the Ziosks, but that would eliminate the need for servers, putting a lot of people out of jobs,” Holder said. “However, I think that people really like being waited on and they like the personal touch, so I don’t think that servers will become obsolete.”
Her favorite part about working at Chili’s is making people smile and feel special when they walk into the warm atmosphere of the restaurant –something customers would lose if technology completely took over the dining-out experience.
The loaded baked potato soup and friendly service is what draws 21-year-old University of Florida biology senior Kevin Molina into Chilli’s.
Molina’s first impression of the Ziosk was that it was a cool addition to the tables. He has used the device to pay his check and look at drink specials and thought it was easy to navigate.
“I liked how it could automatically calculate the tip for you based on a percentage, so I don’t have to pull out my phone,” Molina said. “I also liked how the waiter or waitress could separate the check, and each of my friends could pay for their share without having the waiter or waitress do a big hassle of bringing five or more checks to the table.”
In August 2012, Publix Super Markets introduced the concept of online deli ordering to customers. By October of that year, the Publix Deli Online Easy Ordering service was offered in 50 of the supermarket chain’s locations. Aimee Guralnick, a University of Florida biology senior who has worked for Publix for seven and a half years, said that online ordering expanded to the Hunters Crossing Publix on 43rd Street around January 2014.
“Publix decided to implement online ordering in the deli because slicing meats and cheeses, and making subs is time consuming,” Guralnick said. “When you’re going grocery shopping, there always tends to be a line in the deli, and it’s not fun waiting for your number to be called then feel rushed to have your meats and cheeses sliced because of the line behind you.”
Gainesville residents are now able to pre-order subs, sliced meats and cheeses, or party platters on their computers or mobile devices for a pick-up time they choose.
“Online ordering makes it so much easier for the customer who wants to have their sub made for them before they get there, so they don’t have to wait–or the customer who wants to grab their custom meats and cheeses and then go on with their shopping,” Guralnick said.
Publix’s slogan is, “where shopping is a pleasure,” and Guralnick, who works at the customer service desk at the front of the store, said online ordering has impacted the customer service experience at Publix in a positive way.
“I used to hear many complaints of the long wait times for the deli,” she said. “Now, there are much fewer complaints and the ones we get we can refer them to the online ordering system. A lot of people still don’t know about it, so it’s our way to help them and implement its use for their next shopping trip.”
Rather than taking customer service out of the dining experience, technology is improving it. Chili’s is benefiting from its kiosks through an increase in customer feedback and happiness.
“They definitely improve customer service at Chili’s,” Molina said. “Paying the check is much quicker, and they also had things like the specials or drinks on there, so you don’t have to ask the server. Since it helps the server out, it can take some stress off their job, and in doing so, allows them to bring a better customer service experience to the diner.”
Domino’s is also reaping the benefits of technology in the customer service area.
“Digital is cool, you know?” Wehbe said. “The best part of digital to me, as a franchise owner, is the feedback.”
Wehbe reports that he now receives 150 to 200 customer comments a week. He believes this is better than the occasional face-to-face comment.
“To be able to listen, to respond and fix things if it’s wrong or acknowledge that we’re doing a great job is a great thing to get,” Wehbe said. “It think that’s one of the components within the digital QSR world that is not really talked about. It’s not a thing.”
Wehbe said that he reads a lot of publications, and he never sees an article on the impact technology has on customer service.
“At the end of the day, today’s consumers, specifically millennials, want it quick, they want it right, and they want it to be value-priced,” Wehbe said. “The top 10 (QSR) companies that are publicly traded all have those three things. They have digital, they are quick, they have an open kitchen, and they are innovative and they adapt.”
He added, “Millennials really control the QSR industry, and if we don’t adapt, we’re going to go away. It’s that simple. I see it. Restaurants today that are refusing to change and sticking to what it was 20 years ago, I don’t see how they’re going to make it until they change.”