Why quick-service restaurants are putting in-store tech on the menu
Chains turn to digital menu boards, ordering kiosks and branded drive-thru robots to engage consumers.
Quick-service restaurants (QSRs) have a short window of time to connect with consumers given the nature of grab-and-go dining. But so far this year, several major chains like McDonald's and Subway have made notable moves to lure — and keep — customers in stores using in-store technology and digital tactics.
Just this month, KFC installed an animatronic Colonel Harland Sanders robot at some locations, complete with speech recognition and artificial intelligence (AI), to transform the drive-thru operator's voice into the brand mascot's distinctive Southern drawl. Though a goofy tactic to celebrate National Fried Chicken Day, the effort introduced a novelty element to otherwise routine drive-thru experiences. More importantly, it also points to somewhat of a revolution for restaurants following years of innovations to the online and mobile ordering experience.
This revolution is likely emerging in response to consumers' evolving behaviors and growing demand for immediacy. Now, digital channels like mobile and social media are simply where today's consumers live, Gerard Murphy, director of product at TripAdvisor Restaurants, told Marketing Dive. Restaurants must tweak their strategy toward digital if they want to stay afloat, he added.
"The 'megaphone' or blast strategy of print isn't as effective in reaching targeted consumers who are looking to make immediate dining decisions," Murphy said. Digital investments like building a brand's social media presence and installing in-store tech are time-intensive, he added, but help restaurants cut through the clutter in the already crowded QSR space.
"The 'megaphone' or blast strategy of print isn't as effective in reaching targeted consumers who are looking to make immediate dining decisions."
TripAdvisor Restaurants director of product
In-store tech like digital signage — a fancy term for in-store screens, restaurant display menus or other content — is nothing new, but only recently have QSR marketers begun to see just how much it can boost customers' dining experience. These dynamic displays can switch between multiple content sources like menus, news, weather, sports, branded social media dashboards or live promotions, engaging customers and reducing perceived wait time by up to 35%, according to a Lavi Industries study.
"Driving people to stores comes down to sharing engaging content on channels that our fans already love and keeping with the pillars of the brand," Melanie Cohn, Dunkin' Donuts' senior manager of digital and social media, told Marketing Dive about the chain's varied approach to in-store tech engagements.
This is particularly critical as fast food sales continue to dip and younger consumers — who've traditionally been loyal QSR fans — gravitate toward healthier options. But while dine-in sales this year have trended negative and visits to casual dining spots fell 4%, to-go orders are up 2.9%, indicating a slight shift in consumer habits, according to NPD data. As more savvy QSRs embrace digital tech and develop seamless mobile and delivery options, customers could very likely shift back toward eating out.
Doughnuts go digital
To celebrate this year's National Doughnut Day in June, Dunkin' Donuts rolled out a digital-heavy campaign that integrated live social media conversations about fans' favorite flavors onto digital menu boards in select stores.
While consumers could engage with the brand through doughnut-themed content online, download virtual sticker packs and emojis and find out which of Dunkin' Donuts' classic donuts best fit the user's personality through an AI-powered chatbot, the main goal of the effort, according to Cohn, was to drive consumers to stores. Once there, the digital engagement continued, with customers able to share their brand fandom with friends via a sponsored Snapchat selfie lens and geofilter only available in or near one of the 8,500 U.S. stores.
Several million people used the branded Snapchat lens on National Doughnut Day, Cohn said, and the company saw a more than 400% lift in daily online mentions — which were collected via the hashtag #NationalDonutDay.
Dunkin' Donuts' digital displays are easily adaptable and can promote daily specials or instantly switch between hot or cold drinks depending on the weather. The company's embracing of emerging tech demonstrates shifting priorities toward digital to improve customers' experience and boost brand relevance, Cohn said, and it keeps with the fundamentals of QSRs — speedy service that adjusts to match consumers' fluctuating tastes and interests. Likewise, menu boards should do the same. Plus, these panels allow restaurants to share up-to-the-minute inventory information and update in-store ads when popular items are sold out or in short supply.
Communicating invisible values
One reason Dunkin' Donuts — and many other QSRs — are tapping digital tech in stores is that executives see customers constantly connected on their mobile devices, and marketers recognize that this trend toward tech comes with new opportunities to engage with consumers digitally by meeting them where they already are.
"The restaurant space is always evolving, but in general, it is still a very local experience. For example, the McDonald's in Boston, MA, that serves lobster rolls in the summer is different than the McDonald's in India that serves the McSpicy paneer burger."
TripAdvisor Restaurants director of product
As sandwich giant Subway demonstrates in its recent "Fresh Forward" initiative with self-order kiosks, mobile pay, USB charging ports at tables and a Facebook Messenger bot for taking orders, in-store tech isn't exclusive to simply listing food items. It can show in-depth information like allergy or calorie data for more informed decision-making long before the point of purchase, which could also speed up the queue and boost customer engagement with the brand. A 2015 Nielsen survey found that marketing displayed on digital signs led to a recall rate of 83%. And because digital signs are designed to circulate through a variety of content, customers are shown multiple messages over the course of their visit, leading to 400% more views than static displays, Nielsen found.
Nearly 30% of customers surveyed by Eclipse Digital said these digital displays are influential for purchasing a product, along with an increase in positive brand perception. When a QSR enlists digital technology in its locations, it signals that it's serious about offering a quality, up-to-date customer experience and tailoring its food, content and staff to consumers' wants and needs. The bottom line is that these dynamic screens are a powerful channel that can communicate the intangible values of a QSR brand: the speed, quality, service and customer experience that underpin a company.
Top-of-mind and tip-of-tongue local brand
McDonald's, no stranger to embracing new technology, began to roll out digital kiosk ordering and table service last year as part of a broader brand overhaul aiming to improve customers' dining experience in stores. The touch-screen technology is meant to speed up the ordering process and give people more control over customizing their food, while increasing efficiency so servers can focus on providing a more localized and engaging experience instead of swiping credit cards.
"The restaurant space is always evolving, but in general, it is still a very local experience," Murphy said. "For example, the McDonald's in Boston, MA, that serves lobster rolls in the summer is different than the McDonald's in India that serves the McSpicy paneer burger."
Efforts by McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts and other chains point to a trend among QSRs to use all available means to better connect with consumers locally through dynamic digital platforms — and menu items — in brick-and-mortar locations. And according to Cohn, pairing that with customers' mobile devices is a "playful strategy" to drive engagement and position QSRs as modern and top-of-mind brands.
Follow Natalie Koltun on Twitter