Back to the Automat or Forward to the Food Replicator?

May 8, 2012

There’s nothing like opening a blog post with a title that combines Automats – the cool-to-kitschy precursor to fast food restaurants – with a nod to culinary science fiction and Star Trek. The title comes as a response to a recent MediaPost article that gives a cautionary kudos to T.G.I. Friday’s launch of an iPhone and Android app that enables self-checkout. The app cuts down on customer wait time, improves service, and helps the franchise become trendsetters in the re-automation of the fast casual experience, helping enhance the customer experience while driving loyalty.

The article’s author, Steve Smith, praises the apps introduction, but suggests too much automation may give restaurant goers a tech-sour stomach. He writes:

“Creating efficiencies in the retail context almost certainly cuts human elements out of the loop, or at the very least changes the human role. And it is worth considering how and why the original Automat concept invented by Horn & Hardart soon became more of a curio than a fixture in American life. We got a glimpse of a more fully automated future of fast food, and we walked back from it.”

So maybe the Automat wasn’t destined for 21st century greatness, but the T.G.I. Friday’s app launch is not a step backward in time. If anything, it is a leap toward to the future where in an engaging and seamless manner, simply dictating (and item comparing) your dining request to an intelligent computer, à la a Star Trek food replicator, gets the job of ordering done so quickly and painlessly that it leaves restaurant patrons more time, not less, to be, well…human.  Customers are able to enjoy the best of the real-world experience that fast casual establishments have to offer.

The online retail environment, already highly automated, is increasingly becoming a model the physical world is trying to emulate. And nothing need be lost. In fact, the mixing and merging of online and offline media speaks to the heart of some of what strategic loyalty companies like Kobie offer. Today’s increasingly omnichannel consumers are tasking omnichannel marketers to keep pace with their shopping demands. It’s a healthy tug-and-pull that’s given rise to a holistic approach we call “omnichannel loyalty” and how marketers aren’t just selling to consumers across all channels simultaneously; they’re gaining invaluable metrics and analytics over how and where their customers want to be engaged.

Physical retail spaces are already offering technologies like intelligent gaming and simulations that can detect shoppers’ moods and even their gender. Advances like this augment the physical world, not undermine it. Maybe in the future stores and restaurants will feature interactive shelving, where products change depending on patron mood or an (artificially) intelligent computer’s deduction of what a customer will likely buy based on previous purchases – or what they had for dinner.

I’m pretty sure not even Star Trek’s replicators could do that. But there’s no sense denying that the online world will continue merging with the physical world and that the customer experience, whether in restaurants or in retail establishments is set to change.

Maybe the next time you finish paying your Friday’s check, you’ll Tweet your server “thank you and good night.”