COVID-19 has unleashed a series of phrases that get echoed throughout media and the community.
“These are unprecedented times”… yeah, we get it.
The one that has baffled me is the term used to describe mobile ordering in a hospitality or entertainment context.
“Contactless ordering”. The industry buzzword of 2020.
While I understand how this has happened — COVID has forced venues to adopt technology allowing their customers to have less contact with their staff while ordering and paying — this term actually heightens the biggest fears of the industry. In a world where many of us are starved for human connection, ‘contactless’ doesn’t exactly tickle the senses.
But I'll come back to this shortly…
Firstly, how did digital menus and mobile ordering emerge?
As far back as hundreds of years ago, the restaurant experience was surprisingly similar to now. The host seats you, explains the menu, writes down your order, brings it out to you, then you pay at the end.
Sounds familiar right?
Though Eastern countries, with their technology-led mindset, chose to adopt digital menus and tablet or QR code ordering for the past decade or so.
Chinese citizens interact QR codes multiple times a day, whether it’s to order food and beer from their table, pay for cabs, or even donate to a homeless person. In China, the all-in-one app that controls daily life, WeChat, is at the centre of this transformation. It’s the reason QR code adoption has always remained strong in China compared to Western culture where they *nearly* died, until Apple and Google integrated QR readers natively into smartphones.
Japan and Korea have used tablet ordering in restaurants since - I‘m sure you’d have memories of ordering this way in a Japanese restaurant, albeit vague from all the saké. While tablet ordering solutions have always offered convenience and novelty, venues have to buy a sh*tload of hardware to set this up, which makes a lot less sense now in a world where most consumers have smartphones.
Which approach is better long term?
Changing deeply embedded social behaviour is a bloody slow process. The industry’s perception of what service should look like has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years, and it often takes a significant economic catalyst to accelerate this change. For hospo and entertainment, it’s COVID-19. For retail, it was the GFC forcing them to go online.
With increasing overheads, competition and labour costs around the world, having a high touch, human process for hospitality is making it harder and harder to have healthy margins — whether it’s a cafe, restaurant, bar, brewery or music festival, business owners are struggling more than ever to make the numbers work.
Regardless of how we feel about our phones consuming us, the silver lining of COVID for the industry is the greater consumer acceptance of a new, mobile-integrated service model. Mobile ordering frees up wasted time for servers who would otherwise be writing down orders, entering them into the point of sale, taking payments and splitting bills. It allows them to focus on the meaningful parts of hospitality like building a relationship, remembering your name and educating you on the menu offering or the venue’s story.
Many argue that the digital approach, that's become standard practice in many parts of Asia, is far too transactional — some imagine a dystopian future where no one speaks to each other and only robots serve our food to us.
Unsurprisingly, at me&u we’re raging optimists and envision a model that retains meaningful human interaction while leveraging technology to create efficiency and an improved customer experience — and this isn’t us theorising — high performing venues using our QR code ordering like The Grounds of Alexandria, Fancy Hanks and The Winery get consistent 5 star customer feedback with more than 50% of their revenue going through the platform. They’ve found the sweet spot between traditional and futuristic.
Back to ‘contactless ordering’.
With all this in mind, surely we can think of a better phrase than 'contactless ordering’ for what is actually an exciting transformation for the industry.
When COVID is behind us, the last thing the hospitality industry wants to provide is a ‘contactless’ customer experience. Industry leaders will have a healthy blend of human interaction and technology to take the customer experience to new heights.
Whether we call it QR code ordering, mobile ordering or table ordering… I’m not too fussed. Just anything other than a buzzword that has no meaning in a post-COVID world.