So how far can we push self service? That’s an interesting process design question. There are clearly instances in which (at least some) customers prefer to do the work for themselves as opposed to waiting for a staff member to serve them. But just how far that be taken?
A California start up is now trying to see if it can move self service into full-service restaurants. At many restaurants, customers already participate in the service process by, say, picking up their food at the counter or clearing their table when they are done. E La Carte, however, is targeting restaurants which otherwise have “proper” sit-down service. They provide a tablet that resides on the table and allows customers to peruse the menu or order more drinks at their leisure. Here is how it is described in Slate (This Waiter Doesn’t Need a Tip, Apr 22):
It works like this. The company manufactures tablet computers with full-day battery lives and a credit-card reader attached. The interface is easy enough for a grade-schooler to use. You select what you want to eat and add items to a cart. Depending on the restaurant’s preferences, the console could show you nutritional information, ingredients lists, and photographs. You can make special requests, like “dressing on the side” or “quintuple bacon.” When you’re done, the order zings over to the kitchen, and the Presto tells you how long it will take for your items to come out. Want a margarita in the meantime? Just add it on the console, and wait for the waiter to bring it. Bored with your companions? Play games on the machine. When you’re through with your meal, you pay on the console, splitting the bill item by item if you wish and paying however you want. And you can have your receipt emailed to you.
According to CNNMoney (Your new waiter is a tablet, May 16), the system has been installed in a number of Bay Area restaurants and has been well received. The company claims that it has boosted sales 10% to 12%, largely by enabling impulse purchases (another round of drinks is an excuse to play with the toy).
The question is whether in the long run this is an attractive process redesign.
Clearly customers can benefit from having more control of the transactions and not having to always wait for staff to help. Arguably this is one the advantages of self-check in at the airport. I can pick the perfect seat from the available options without having to explain to an airline worker how I trade off being on the aisle versus being at the back of the plane. Of course, a restaurant could accomplish much of this without tablets by allowing customer to text waiters (which we have written about before).
The gain to restaurants comes not just from selling more drinks. Like airport kiosks, there is possibility of processing more customers with fewer staff. These tablets would allow waiters to focus on bringing out food and clearing dishes as opposed to stopping to describe entrées or take drink orders. It’s not clear there is a whole lot to be saved in that area. As the Slate article points out, many restaurants pay their staff very little in hourly wages, counting on tips to make the job worthwhile for waiters. I would suspect that tips fall where these systems are introduced. With less of chance to make a connection with the guest, waiters are less able to earn a good tip. Waiters may be doing less valuable tasks but the restaurant may have to pay them more.