Empowering Foodservice Customers

The latest technologies being used to manage c-store foodservice programs—from touchscreens and POS ordering terminals to digital signage—are allowing marketers to enhance communications and streamline operations.

Touchscreens communicate the menu in a very efficient way. This is especially important as chains look to build incremental sales and make more subtle changes like expanding the number of condiments they’re offering.

“When you go to a deli, is the sales associate able to communicate all of the condiments that you actually have? Chances are, probably not,” said Charles Young, chief information officer and general manager for the Impact 21 Group, a retail consulting firm based in Lexington, Ky. “Unless it’s visible to the customer it’s pretty hard to do that on a consistent basis.”

The result, then, is that stores can expand their menus and fully communicate it to customers.

“Certainly that kind of kiosk ordering is expanding,” Young said. “I don’t think there is a critical mass, per se, (that a retailer must reach) as much as there is the commitment and desire of the organization to do it.”

Staying in Touch
Clearly, in some areas remote order entry systems like kiosks have really become popular. Operators like Sheetz, Wawa, Wilson Farms and Quick Chek Food Stores all on the East Coast have redefined the food experience using these kiosks. With Sheetz you can even order your custom sandwich or salad while you are pumping gas.

“I think that the biggest thing about touchscreens is that today’s consumers are more accustomed to talking to screens than talking to people,” observed Jeff Lenard, vice president of communications for NACS. After having read a recent headline in the satirical Onion newspaper—80% Of Adults Waking Lives Spent Staring at Glowing Rectangles—Lenard said he “laughed and then thought about it: I sit eight hours in front of my computer. I go home and watch TV. I check my PDA, I check on the computer, so it probably is pretty close.”

Add to that the number of today’s youth with gadgets like iPods, and a technological approach to menu ordering seems even more desirable. “(The younger generation) is very comfortable, and maybe even prefers, interacting with a touchscreen,” Lenard said. “You also see kiosks at airports, and for self-checkout at Home Depot and grocery stores. They really are something that people have become very accustomed to.”

From the retail perspective, a touchscreen eliminates employees from the order-taking process, Lenard noted. “You really don’t need a person to stand there and scribble down what somebody wants. You can use that time to better deliver customer service, whether it’s making food or interacting with customers. Let the machines do what the machines do well.”

Very few convenience stores are actually running dual operations, where they’ve got a full-service restaurant in stores. “Touchscreens are the next best thing for allowing the customers to be able to place their own orders. And it reduces labor,” said Robert Grimes, chairman of Accuvia Consulting in Potomac, Md.

Grimes has not seen many c-stores considering online ordering, “but it seems to be that if you have a kiosk and you can take payments, why would you not just run the same software, do online ordering, and have the person come in and pick it up? It makes the c-store destination more than just a place to get gas, and it’s probably more convenient than some of the restaurants that are out there,” he said.

Fueling Sales
The interactive kiosks also empower customers to order food their own way without feeling any pressure to order too quickly. “My experience as a customer is that when I go to some of these places like McDonald’s, I see the menu board and all I want is a cheeseburger, but it takes me two minutes to find that, and so I just blurt out something because I don’t want to holdup all the other people in line behind me,” Lenard said. “But with a touchscreen you’re really not wasting anybody’s time. And if you have enough touchscreens, you don’t feel that urgency to just get something.”

Plus, touchscreens never forget to upsell. For example, Rutter’s Farm Stores reported sales of buttered rolls increased dramatically simply by adding a prompt to the touchscreen before customers complete their order.

Lenard also suggested that retailers like Wawa and Sheetz unleash the creativity of their guests with touchscreen devices. His own eight-year-old daughter ordered a hoagie with bacon and ranch dressing, “something she wouldn’t have asked for if I was ordering for her. I wouldn’t have allowed it because it sounds disgusting, but she loved it,” he said.

As a byproduct, since all the ordering data is tracked and mined at the kiosks, retailers can use this information to bring new dishes to the menu as patterns emerge.

Another potential benefit comes from labeling items on the touchscreen device as top sellers. “Nothing succeeds like success,” Lenard noted. “If they see that an item is a top seller, people are more likely to try it.”

Down the Road
New technology allows foodservice managers to monitor sales activity on a real-time basis and roll the information together into Excel spreadsheets.

Having that kind of information on tap means operators can reduce out of stocks and boost impulse sales. It also shows the crucial difference between what’s actually being sold versus what they think they’re selling. More importantly, it permits the creation of so-called “heat maps” on a store-by-store basis, allowing operators to identify peak selling opportunities.

To market items, Grimes, of Accuvia Consulting, called digital signage for foodservice “a very hot property. A lot of companies are using these systems to promote what they’re doing at the fuel pumps and even on billboards on the highway.”

Down the road, operators will take the next step and tie into consumers’ handheld computers, something Starbucks is doing now. “For the short term, if I were focusing on any technologies, it would be touchscreens and digital signage, which are great ways of promoting and selling items,” Grimes said.

Despite the advances in technology, retail experts think convenience stores are still seeing just the tip of the iceberg.

“POS technology does an amazing job of tracking sales, voids and providing cash balance reports. They do not do a good job of tracking depleting inventory or providing daily costing as they promise to,” said Rudy Miick, founder and president of Miick & Associates in Boulder, Colo., a foodservice consulting group focused on improving retail performance.

“In the convenience store segment, because so much product is prepackaged and portion controlled, I can only assume that inventory tracking is more easily accomplished,” Miick said. “The real issue is what the machines don’t track; the human inconsistency on tracking production, waste and use. If you are not considering these factors, you will never really know your true cost and are severely limiting your profit potential.” CSD

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