Back To The Automat?: T.G.I. Friday's Mobilizes Self-Checkout
For those of us who have waited forever to get the check. For those of us who were unsure whether they could get in or out of a restaurant fast enough to make the movie. For those of us who got increasingly frustrated with the service and wondered where and how to complain. T.G.I. Friday’s appears to have designed a mobile app with at least some of the obvious nacho-chomping booth-dweller use cases in mind. Bravo to them for taking a good first crack at leveraging the handset as a virtual waitress.
The new iPhone and Android app from Friday’s tries to tie the customer more directly into the point of sale in at least one key way -- letting them pay the tab. Only about 300 restaurants actually are enabled right now with this capability (I couldn’t test it on my local outlet). But where available, the customer can enter payment info once and maintain their tab, monitor it throughout the night, and pay it without flagging down the waitress. The scheme is managed through partnerships with Tabbedout and a cluster of partners, including Carlson IT, Illume Mobile and Click Here, Inc.
I can’t say myself how the synchronization occurs in venue between my virtual tab and the POS. According to the app instructions the user registers with a specific venue to open a tab, you get a five-digit code that you show the waitress. She should see your code on her POS for assigning the bill. One imagines a time in the next few years when NFC could take care of this for you when you enter the restaurant and open your app.
The tab payment system is tied directly into the Friday’s point-of-sale system. Customers can decide when they are done for the night, trigger the payment, and the staff can see that a table or bar patron is paid out. Does this save the customer much time? Maybe. Surely it makes Friday’s itself more efficient. A credit card payment requires three trips to a table by a waiter or waitress: one to bring the check, another to pick up the card for payment and another to pick up the signed stub.
For the patron, however, the value add is not just time, but perhaps a greater sense of control -- a changed relationship to the merchant’s environment. This is one aspect of mobile self-checkout worth watching and considering over time. There is a price to be paid at retail for disintermediating the sales staff at multiple points. This app does not allow ordering from your mobile device, but that is the next and easiest natural step. One can imagine a complete alteration of the low end dining experience where “servers” and “waiters” really become “deliverers.”
Is the future of franchise restaurants informed a bit by its past? I can recall childhood and even teen jaunts to Times Square in New York to enjoy one of the last of the Horn & Hardart’s “Automats,” where patrons snatched food from a wall of aluminum shelves and windows. You occasionally saw a human hand thrust a plate down the chute, but not much beyond that. The automation of fast food was enough to spark vandalism against H&H locations in New York City in the 1930s that many attributed to labor unions.
Whether the Automat 2.0 scenario is ever made real by mobile self-checkout is of course an open question, but the technology certainly makes it possible. And even if we don’t take the model to such an extreme, the mobilization of the retail space, and the ways that personal technology changes the consumer’s basic commercial relationship to the merchant, requires a deep think. How much can technology make the physical retail experience feel more like an online retail experience? How do these changes reorient marketing and merchandising?
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.