Has the advent of smartphones changed customer behavior in restaurants? According to a piece in PetaPixel, it has and not in a really good way (Restaurant Finds that Smartphone Photos Have Doubled Table Times Since 2004, Jul 14). Here’s the gist of the story, someone at a popular New York City supposedly sat down and looked at security footage from 2004 and 2014 and compared how long customers sat at tables. They measured out how long it took them to peruse the menu, eat their food etc. Here is a sample description of what they found in 2014.
- Customers walk in.
- Customers get seated and is given menus, out of 45 customers 18 requested to be seated elsewhere.
- Before even opening the menu they take their phones out, some are taking photos while others are simply doing something else on their phone (sorry we have no clue what they are doing and do not monitor customer WiFi activity).
- Finally the waiters are walking over to the table to see what the customers would like to order. The majority have not even opened the menu and ask the waiter to wait a bit.
- Customer opens the menu, places their hands holding their phones on top of it and continue doing whatever on their phone.
- Waiter returns to see if they are ready to order or have any questions. The customer asks for more time.
- Finally they are ready to order.
- Total average time from when the customer was seated until they placed their order 21 minutes. [Compared to 8 mins in 2004]
There are similar delays for taking pictures of food or each others over the rest of the meal. The punchline is that they found that the average time a party sat at a table climbed by 50 minutes — from 1:05 to 1:55.
What to make of all this? First, it is a nice example of how customer behavior in a service system needs to be actively managed. Customers undertake behavior that can be detrimental to the firm. Here customer lollygagging essentially halves the capacity of the firm. A restaurant that could once get four parties through its tables in an evening is going to get two through. The firm, however, can minimize that impact by anticipating the issue and nudging customers to avoid the problematic behavior. For example, perhaps the waiter should come check on a party sooner to get them to quit it with the phones and order a round of drinks.
Having said that, I cannot help be dubious of these numbers. I don’t doubt that customers messing with their phones slows down restaurant service. But I am not sure the effect is so severe. Said, another way, if a restaurant had seen its capacity drop this dramatically, would it really have had to pour over old footage to figure this out? (Note here that there is a difference between capacity and sales. Just because a firm has the capacity doesn’t mean it will necessarily be used.)
I am also not sure that smartphones are the only culprits here. Overtime menu have become more complex — cocktail descriptions are elaborate and entrees give the source of various ingredients. That too will slow service even if no takes a picture of their appetizers.