Chili's sees table-based tablet as way to recapture dinner

The chain may be radically rethinking how business can be done

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Credit: iStockphoto

Far too often, retailers use technology to slightly accelerate current operations, rather than to leverage technology's power to radically rethink how business can be done. Fast casual chain Chili's is trying to do the latter.

Here's the business issue. Chili's needs to push convenience and quality. It can't be as fast as quick-service restaurants (think McDonald's, Wendy's) but it can beat them on perceived quality and variety of menu items. It can't beat local family-owned fine dining on quality, but it can blow them away on price and certainly beat them on speed.

What Chili's did was to break the meal into its parts and use technology to slash the time for the boring non-value-add parts, such as placing an order, waiting for the check, paying the check and — my least favorite — trying to get the attention of waitstaff to get the aforementioned table, place an order or ask for/receive the check. It concluded that a table-mounted tablet, if it could handle much of the food-ordering and all of the food-paying parts, could decrease the time for the parts of the meal experience it couldn't improve on and therefore increase the time for the parts that it had a shot at boosting.

Although Chili's — which claims more than 1,550 locations in 31 countries and two territories — has been using tablets for two years, it announced last week plans to integrate the Android Pay experience into its table-based pay options by the end of the year, allowing NFC mobile and instant loyalty signup for the first time.

"We're trying to take back lunch and dinner from fast casual," said Wade Allen, ‎vice president of customer engagement and digital innovation at Chili's. "It will be a little more of an experience for a little more time, to further reduce friction in the guest experience."

Technologically, Allen said, consumers are in the middle of the mobile shift. Not enough of them have smartphones — let alone NFC-enabled smartphones — to move payments entirely to consumer-owned mobile devices. The table-based tablet is an in-between move, he said. "This is an infrastructure play, where this communal device will interact differently in the future. It's a bridge to mobile being the front-and-center piece. For the next five years, though, [table-based] tablet is the way to go."

Allen's view is that the table devices "will build some muscle memory in the interactive experience." For example, today's technology offers relatively inaccurate geolocation, especially inside buildings. That makes geolocation a bad choice to differentiate table 9 from table 11. But a table-attached tablet can be programmed to accurately broadcast that it is atop table 9.

Another transition example: ordering. Chili's is letting the tabletop units order appetizers, desserts and drink refills, but little else. "We don't allow full ordering, only light ordering," Allen said. "We are, though, toying with kids meals because it's a much more limited-SKU meal."

The problem with full ordering? First, the number of meal modifications (sauce on the side, replace the broccoli with string beans, medium rare for customer 3 but well done for customer 4) can be overwhelming for a five-person table. Secondly, "on the full menu, you have more questions," and that is an opportunity for servers to explain and recommend. Not only is that an opportunity to boost revenue and margin, but it can also be a strong value-add to the overall experience. An effective caring and knowledgeable waiter/waitress can be a huge competitive advantage.

The new part is the mobile payment, and the reason this is of strong interest is that it has the potential to sharply accelerate the ending part of the meal, which is where a lot of experiences go downhill. The meal is over, the kids are getting rambunctious and the goal now is to leave. This replaces having to get the attention of a wait person and then get the check delivered and then prepare to pay for it (typically putting down cash or plastic) and then get the attention of the wait person again to take it back and then again to have it returned, with the receipt. A 10-second interaction with mobile and the desktop unit can replace all of that, along with integrated rewards points.

Viren Balar, the chief technology officer for Ziosk, the company that is handling the desktop devices for Chili's, said it expects to see loyalty enrollment increase 10 times with these devices compared with the paper-based loyalty enrollment that Chili's is otherwise using.

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