Cheers to the drinks of the future

From wearable tech to robot baristas, technological innovation is stirring things up in the beverages sector

By Mike Kostyo

New technologies have a way of seeming futuristic, even ridiculous, one day and indispensable the next. Looking back to just a decade ago, it’s hard to believe we had yet to meet Amazon’s Alexa or gotten our hands on an iPad. Uber had yet to deliver its first passenger, let alone a meal, while companies like SkipTheDishes and DoorDash were still a few years from launching. Now, however, many of us interact with these technologies on a daily basis.

If that much can happen in the last decade, what does the future hold? The beverage category in particular has seen a lot of tech innovation, with plenty more on the way. Here are just a few of the concepts, technologies, and changes that should be on your radar.

Wearable Technologies

Remember when everyone said that tech-enabled glasses would be the “next big thing” … and then they weren’t? Well, the concept could be rising from the dead. Apple is reportedly working on a set of glasses that could launch in the next few years, while Amazon introduced its Echo Frames last year. A growing number of consumers are wearing smart watches, wireless earbuds and even smart rings. With the launch of 5G technologies rolling out in Canada this year, these types of wearable devices will be smaller and more powerful than ever.

Many consumers may already be interacting with your operation or brand through technology, but that will only become more widespread. You might send a vibration to their ring to let them know their drink is up, or pay for an ad to pop up on their digital glasses when they’re looking for a café or bar nearby. These technologies have implications for back-of-house, as well, with some brands considering augmented-reality glasses for training (the directions to make a new coffee drink might appear right on the lenses themselves) or hospitality (a ping to a smart watch lets the server know that a table hasn’t been touched in a set amount of time – it might be time for a refill).

Self-ordering Kiosks

Ordering kiosks are only becoming more prevalent across Canada every day. Get ready for a lot more personalization and customization opportunities. We’ll see more brands making recommendations based on what a customer orders, linking the kiosk to loyalty programs to personalize the experience for each customer, or allowing customers to tweak the menu based on their likes and dislikes. McDonald’s has embraced machine learning to make its menu boards smarter: they can change up the recommendations based on the weather, and the company has tested tech that can recognize a licence plate and tailor the menu to the customer.

If this sounds a little invasive, consider that customers often already expect personalized recommendations in other areas of their lives, from Netflix to Spotify to Instacart. In the future, kiosks could even invent new drinks on the spot based on the individual customer, sending the newly-invented recipe for a unique coffee drink or milkshake to the tech-enabled back-of-house for the human and/or robot barista to prepare.

Of course, beverages are also one of the few options where sometimes self-service means the customer is actually making the drinks themselves. Tech-enabled soda machines, beer taps, wine bars, etc. continue to pop up in a wide variety of segments, from restaurants to bars, hotels to amusement parks. That doesn’t even include the range of beverage robots: last year, Briggo, a robot barista company, entered into an agreement with SSP America to bring 25 of its automated coffee kiosks to airports across the U.S. and Canada.

Delivery/Pickup

Off-premise dining is more prevalent than ever before, with no signs of the trend slowing down – from tiny, tech-enabled, pickup-only stores (Starbucks opened its first one last year) to elaborate pickup areas that use screens to welcome customers or special cubbies that customers unlock through their phone.

Ritual, the “social ordering” platform available in major markets throughout Canada, lets customers piggyback on coworkers’ orders for pickup, making it more cost-effective to add on a low-cost coffee or tea, while Brightloom (formerly eatsa) has developed a smart pickup platform that displays a customer’s name when an order is ready, knows when an order has been picked up, and alerts the back-of-house when a dish or drink has been sitting for too long and should be remade.

A number of restaurant brands are also offering or testing central pickup points, either in offices or key locations (stores, hospitals), allowing them to deliver to a single location and have a branded presence there, sometimes complete with an attached self-ordering kiosk.

Customer First

It’s important to remember that not all customers have the same fluency and preferences when it comes to new tech. While some younger consumers prefer technology over any human interaction (Uber launched its “Quiet Mode,” which alerts the driver that the passenger prefers to skip the small talk, in Toronto last year), many older demographics aren’t as immediately comfortable when presented with a self-ordering kiosk when they walk in the door. Taking the time to subtly determine a customer’s preferences will be key as these technologies only become more prevalent and futuristic in the future.

It’s also important to let the customer know how a technology benefits them, not just the owner or brand. According to our research, the No. 1 factor that will motivate consumers to accept technologies more readily is if you can show them that it somehow lowers the cost for them. The robotic coffee kiosks, for instance, often note that the drinks are cheaper than the equivalent option at a full-service café.

And if any of this sounds far-fetched, save this article in a folder and wait 10 years – if anything, things will likely be even weirder than any of us imagined.

Mike Kostyo is the resident trendologist and senior managing editor on the market intelligence team at Datassential, the food industry’s leading market research and trends company. For more information about anything in this article, contact Mike at mike@datassential.com.

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