Smartphones, personalization and the future of restaurants

By Denis Hancock
April 23, 2014
Smartphones, personalization and the future of restaurants

Bill Gates famously said that “we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years, and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10.” As restaurant leaders think through the role technology will play in changing our lives over the coming decade, I believe the most important technology investments to focus on are the ones that allow for enhanced personalized guest experiences. The smartphone is the critical piece of technology for this, because it reverses the decades-old trend of generic service and non-personalized touches.

The argument here is fairly straightforward. A long time ago, personalized service was the norm at all kinds of retail establishments (including restaurants). This service was often provided by the store owner who knew you by name – and all your preferences as well. But that model doesn’t scale particularly well, and consumers showed over time they would sacrifice personalized service if it meant getting something cheaper, better or more consistent. For better or worse, the pursuit of efficiency has greatly eroded the personal touch in many shopper and guest experiences.

Reverses trend

The rise in popularity of smartphones has the potential to dramatically reverse that trend. And not by sending consumers mobile coupons, or having them “like” you on Facebook (though both of those things may be good as well). Rather, it’s by knowing more about each guest – and importantly, having access to that information at the right time.

Foursquare is the interesting technology to think about here – not for what it is today, but for where it might lead seven to 10 years from now.

Launched in 2009, Foursquare allows people using their smartphone to check in at a given location (coffee shop, restaurant, etc.) through the press of a button. Some people do it for user points and fun badges. Food lovers can earn the “Naan-Sense” badge for chowing down at multiple different Indian restaurants, “Pizzaiolo” for sampling different slices, the “Baker’s Dozen” for checking into different bakeries, and many other restaurant-specific badges. Others simply like letting their friends and followers know where they are. Companies can also offer special discounts and promotions to those who check in. Fairly simple – but think about the bigger picture.

f companies manage to learn about and store information on this customer, the simple act of “checking in” points to a future scenario where a guest shows up at the door, and whoever is working at your restaurant at that moment can immediately know who they are, what they’ve bought before, and any other number of things.

Personalizes the experience

In theory, this one tool can allow for a deeply personalized guest experience, without sacrificing scale or efficiencies – or having all the information sit in one person’s head. Contrasting it with many current loyalty programs, where shoppers and guests don’t reveal who they are until they end of their visit, the benefits and opportunities tied to the “check in” for restaurants are obvious.

While relatively few people “check in” using smartphones today, there is so much potential for growth.  We can’t predict the future, but don’t underestimate the impact this technology could have many years down the road. The technology is still very new, and the potential benefit that could come from widespread adoption is very real for both guests and restaurants.

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