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The Future of POS

Point-of-sale technology affects every aspect of foodservice operations. The Web and wireless technology have freed the POS system for more wide-ranging tasks, like interfacing efficiently with customers. Today’s technology gives customers more control over the dining experience and frees up some labor. The National Restaurant Association says that 46 percent of American adults indicate a likelihood of using self-service technology at a restaurant. New customer interfaces come in a number of guises. Here are five that are worth watching.

The smart (and fun) tabletop

The brainchild of Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese, uWink is a restaurant concept built around the POS system. At the 220-plus-seat prototype in Woodland Hills, California, customers order meals from tabletop touchscreen terminals, browse interactive content and play games while they wait for their food, then pay the bill—without the help of a waiter. “The waiter as an information delivery system to the kitchen was ripe for automation,” says uWink chief technology officer, Brent Bushnell.

Table-side ordering frees up front-of-house staff for other duties and saves labor. The other big benefit, says Bushnell, is a customizable dining experience. With the touch of a finger, guests can customize their orders: hold the mayo in the sandwich, no ice in the drink.

Tabletop games are designed to be interactive. To help couples break the ice, there’s a dating game. Some games are tied to food and drink. A wine game walks you through a blind tasting of three sample wines.

At the end of the meal, a payment wizard walks guests through a procedure that allows them to sign their name with the stroke of a finger; the credit card never leaves the customers’ sight.

Private parties are easy to customize. “For birthdays, if the family has photos, we can run a slideshow at all touchscreens and set up trivia games with questions referring to the birthday guest,” says Bushnell.

Cell phone central

Who could resist tapping into a market of 2.4 billion customers? That’s the number of cell phone users worldwide, according to the Mobile Marketing Association. And those users are tap-tapping some 350 billion text messages a month.

Last September, Domino’s Pizza offered customers the option of using their Web-enabled cell phones to place orders. Papa John’s was the first to offer text-message ordering at all its 2,700-plus restaurants. It initiated texting orders on one of the biggest pizza delivery occasions of the year—the night before Thanksgiving, 2007. Once customers have signed up at papajohns.com, they set up their “favorite orders” along with delivery and payment options. To order, customers dial 4PAPA and text FAV1, etc.

Pizza Hut offers Total Mobile Access, the option of mobile Web-enabled or text-message ordering. You set up an account at pizzahut.com, then text 749HUT and wait for delivery.

Other chains, like Dunkin Donuts, Subway and McDonald’s, are considering or testing mobile and text-based ordering. Not only can the technology create added sales. Once you’ve got a customer’s cell phone number you can send them text-message ads, promotions and other come-ons.

The talking menu

There are plenty of reasons why customers can’t read a menu: the print’s too small, the lighting’s too dim, they forgot their glasses, they can’t read English, they can’t read at all or they’re one of the more than three and a half million Americans who are visually impaired. And there are plenty of reasons why your waitstaff is too busy to read off the specials, much less the whole menu.

It was exactly that kind of experience that inspired Susan Perry to invent Menus That Talk. “My niece has macular degeneration and I didn’t have my reading glasses, so we couldn’t read the menu,” recalls Perry, president of Taylannas Inc., which markets the device.

About the size of a book, the talking menu has 15 buttons labeled, in print and in Braille, with various menu categories; push one and it recites the offerings. Menus That Talk also has a detachable earphone that’s hearing-aid compatible. A light on the unit signals a waiter when service is needed.

The menu supports eight languages, any two simultaneously. Restaurants submit their menus and professional actors record the parts, and there are various voice choices, like an Italian accent or an Elvis impersonator. “Restaurants are all about entertainment,” says Perry about the whimsical voices. Patches for any menu updates or changes can be downloaded from the company’s Web site or with a new flashcard.

Single units cost $300. To purchase the service with five Menus That Talk, the first year costs $3,500; after that, the restaurant owns the units and updating is $300 a year. Talking menus can also be leased. Plans are in the works to interface the talking menus with restaurant paging systems. That way customers can listen to the menu while waiting for their table. “By the time they sit down,” says Perry, “they’ll know what they want.” 

Smart cards get smarter

The latest wave in credit-card technology is the so-called contactless card. These are credit or debit cards embedded with a computer chip, which stores bank account information, and a tiny RF antenna, which can communicate with POS readers.

Widely embraced by merchants and municipalities in Europe, contactless technology is commonly used for easy-pass highway tolls and mass-transit passes in the United States. Now many gas station and c-store chains have started deploying the technology.

The major card issuers have contactless versions: Visa offers Visa Contactless, American Express issues ExpressPay, Chase offers Blink and MasterCard has PayPass. On the other side of the equation, the major POS players as well as third-party suppliers offer contactless readers (which usually also have the standard swipe option). Cards are embedded with encryption technology to secure transactions so that no signature is required.

Recently, a number of fast-food chains have begun testing or instituting the technology, integrating contactless card readers with POS systems at store counters and at drive-thru windows. McDonald’s, Arby’s, Taco Bell and Jack in the Box all have systems in place.

Customers like the cards because they don’t need to take it out of their wallet or purse to use; cards just need to be in near proximity to the reader, not in physical contact. Operators like the cards because the “wave” is faster than the swipe, shaving valuable seconds off transaction times.

Menu boards go digital

Menu boards are a permanent fixture in many restaurants—too permanent maybe, when you have to climb a ladder and fiddle with pieces of plastic to change them. And they’re usually crowded with items for all three dayparts with little room left for merchandising.

But menu boards have entered the digital age, and they have advantages over static boards. Basically, digital menu boards are big-screen LCD TVs displaying specialized content and controlled by a PC or the POS system. Changes to the displays can be made with a keystroke, or even easier: digital menus can be programmed to morph automatically with the daypart. At 11 a.m. on the dot, for example, breakfast offerings give way to lunch, and the system displays dinner menus at, say, 5:30 p.m. Promotions, too, can be customized.

“It’s not a static display, but images that whet the appetite,” explains Larry Drago, marketing specialist for Holbrook, New York-based IDS Menus. Not just hi-rez photos but hi-def mini movies of ripe tomatoes being sliced, dressing drizzled on salads, beer being poured into a glass “keep customers engaged,” says Drago. Displays can also be mounted as “art” in dining rooms for a dynamic decor detail.

So far, there are just a handful of digital menu companies, but that may change as more restaurants try the technology. KFC, for one, is market testing a proprietary system from Minneapolis-based Wireless Ronin Technologies.

There’s more to the concept than just putting up big TV screens. IDS supplies a turnkey package: hardware, software and creative content. The company will manage the system or train operators to do it themselves. Operators will appreciate that, via remote Web access, any menu updates, changes or promotions can be instituted chain-wide simultaneously, or by region or store.

Digital menus are only still in the early-adaptor stage, admits Drago, but IDS has a number of restaurant accounts big and small, from Joe’s Stone Crab to TCBY.

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