McDonald’s move towards dehumanization, launched as a pilot last winter and expanded across San Diego last week, is part of a larger trend of chain eateries turning tablets into your full-time restaurant buddy: equal parts menu, server and paycheck. Applebee’s, Panera Bread and even airport bars have installed tablets to allow diners to order food or booze without a wait.
Chili’s became the U.S. king of human-less ordering this summer when it installed more than 45,000 tabletop tablets nationwide. Marketing executives said the tablets can speed up service and operate like table-side billboards, encouraging impulse orders of appetizers and desserts. A spokesperson for Ziosk, which made the tablets, said guests who used them spent more money, finished quicker and paid better tips. (The future, as one professor predicts: “Robot baristas, robot Realtors and robot sales agents.”)
The move toward tablets is a bet from marketers on a quirk of buyer psychology: that customers will order more food if they can do it on a screen. While ordering from a person might lead you to rein in your appetite, a tablet sits silently and harmlessly, covered in colorful ads. Ordering off a tablet can also lead customers to try something new, which might make them happier and more likely to come back.
With tablet ordering, “you can serve more lunches per hour, and the customers, since so many use their smartphone for just about everything, see it as more convenient,” Standard & Poor’s credit analyst Chuck Pinson-Rose said. “We’re moving toward a point where you have to have these sorts of things. … But it hasn’t gained universal acceptance yet. I don’t know if it’s really going to move the [sales] needle in a big way.”
The tablets could give McDonald’s a few added bonuses outside sales, including helping whisk data more directly back to headquarters on what customers really want. A workforce of tablets could even potentially allow the firm to cut back in staffing. Pay at McDonald’s and other fast-food giants have recently been slammed in nationwide protests.
The made-to-order burgers would potentially end up being more expensive, too, which could help the firm’s bottom line. The McDonald’s tablets offer a colorful, appetizing slew of different buns, cheeses, sauces and toppings, like guacamole, garlic aioli and pickled jalapenos. (A little calorie counter in the corner dings up with every addition.)
“That’s what this is all about,” Hope Neiman, the chief marketing officer of Tillster, which built similar programs for Chili’s and Taco Bell, told the New York Times, “increasing retention, frequency and average check size.”
McDonald’s needs all the help it can get after last month, when the McNugget giant’s same-store sales posted their steepest monthly drop since 2003. Asian buyers were driven away, in particular, after a scare over a China supplier’s selling of expired meat.
But McDonald’s faces plenty of its own challenges in the U.S., including from long-established and fast-casual rivals like Five Guys and Panera Bread, which have led McD’s to remodel restaurants and cut prices. The tablets could potentially lure back a younger, digitally savvy crowd, even as it deals with what restaurant researchers Sandelman & Associates Inc. called a loss in “kid appeal.”
The tablets are in only a handful of the chain’s 14,200 U.S. restaurants, and McD’s didn’t respond to questions Tuesday on how far it would push its next big thing. Already, early reviews are mixed on just how well the modern touch vibes with McD’s older traditions. As a reviewer at Foodbeast said, “The burgers were fine, if a little misplaced, as though everything were a little too high quality to belong in a Mickey D’s.”