Researchers at Cornell University’s Center for Hospitality Research wanted to understand consumers’ reactions to technology innovations in restaurants – specifically how willing they are to use various technologies and what value they perceive in them. They reasoned that understanding this would help operators make better decisions on which innovations to adopt.
For restaurateurs, the potential benefits of incorporating technology into operations are meaningful, including improving flow and speed of service (or the perception of it), increased productivity/reduced labor costs, and increased customer satisfaction. (Depending on the segment, customer satisfaction can come from improved convenience; improved speed of transactions, waiting times and/or payment; and by better management of the pace. In terms of pacing, the study’s authors caution fine dining operators to concentrate on reducing service times before the first food order is delivered and/or after the check is requested; that efforts otherwise are likely to result in lower customer satisfaction.)
As operators weigh the costs of any technology with its potential benefits, the value customers place on it is important to consider. Of the 11 technologies included, respondents found the most value in virtual menus with nutritional information at the table; the least valued were payment systems. While the study’s authors say each technology has the potential to enhance an aspect of the dining experience overall, those employed earlier in the dining experience (e.g., virtual menus, pagers) seem to be preferred over those in the later stages (e.g., various payment options).
The study also measured use of the same technologies by consumers and found that pagers were used most frequently (56% of all respondents), followed by online reservations (32%), Internet-based ordering (27%), handheld order taking (27%), and virtual menus online (26%). One of the key aspects of the study’s findings is that perceived value increases, sometimes dramatically, after customers have had the opportunity to become familiar with a technology. For example, respondents who had used Internet-based ordering found it twice as valuable as those who did not (79% vs. 39%). Perceived value also increased for those who had used pagers vs. those who hadn’t (84% vs. 50%), and those who had made online reservations vs. those who hadn’t (91% vs. 59%). The study’s authors suggest that operators should encourage their customers to use a technology and show them how, but should not push them. “Offer, but don’t force technology,” advises Rohit Verma, Ph.D., one of the study’s authors. “All our numbers say that if consumers use it, they like it” – a caution that is particularly important when it comes to self-service, such as kiosks for ordering and payment. “Customers who aren’t given a choice of using self-service technologies are frequently less satisfied; they feel a reduced sense of control.”
When considering technology investments, operators might want to look at who their customers are. “We found that people who use a particular technology find it more valuable, yes. However, the customer first has to try the technology, and many people aren’t quick to try new technologies,” says Rohit. Using an index developed by other researchers, the study’s authors found that the U.S. population falls into roughly three categories when it comes to techno-readiness: about 1/3 are intrinsically predisposed to try new technologies, another 1/3 moderately so, and the remaining 1/3 not at all. The results showed little difference between men and women, leading Rohit to counsel restaurateurs against stereotyping on gender. Otherwise, he says that low techno-ready people typically value fine dining and younger people are the most techno-ready. Other indicators, he says, are the technologies operators see customers using – are they making online reservations, using their Blackberries/iPhones, etc.? “Look around,” advises Rohit, ”but also remember that around 15 years ago it was probably only the techno-ready group regularly using ATMs. Now they are a way of life. The move to technology has gone so far forward, there’s no way to go back, and today’s cutting-edge technologies will certainly go mainstream.”
“At present, payment-based technologies are ranked much lower by consumers in terms of perceived value and use. But this will change as people see the utility, and their comfort with them increases.” – Rohit Verma, Ph.D., exec dir., Cornell University’s Center for Hospitality Research