Monday, September 17

Making Social Physical: Social Media In Restaurants

Every time I read a story that pits high touch against high tech, digital against physical, or the Internet against brick and mortar, it annoys me. These articles are worthless. The advice is nonsense. The agenda is forcing small business owners to pick one thing or the other because the future is coexistence.

I was reminded of this recently when a mutual group member (David Lopez) of mine posted an article about Mobile Point-of-Sale (POS) technology in restaurants. This article doesn't pit high tech and high touch against each other. It marries it. And this technology is only the tip of the iceberg.

The customer perspective of handheld devices.

When I was traveling in Vancouver a few weeks ago, two restaurants had already adopted mobile point-of-sale handheld devices. Specifically, the server asked us if we needed anything else and we said no, so she pulled out a handheld device. Right there, she swiped the card, allowed me to review the charge, and we were done. The handheld even listed tip options, automatic tip percentages (5-20 percent) or hard dollar amount.

Contrast this to the traditional method practiced by most restaurants. You finish your meal and the server eventually brings out the check. Most people let it sit there awhile, finishing up any remaining edibles and conversations. Eventually you slip in a charge card and it sits around until the server has time. They pick it up, take it back to the register, and then bring it back to you to sign (and calculate the tip in your head).

The traditional method means something as a simple as paying a bill can take five to 20 minutes or more. The tech-savvy solution clocks in around two minutes. The customer wins because several points of contact become one point of contact (and you can leave when you want) and the restaurant wins because everyone who has spent time in restaurant knows that table turns impacts the bottom line.

The only semi-odd thing about it, from my perspective, was having the server stand by while writing the tip. I generally tip 20 percent anyway (a old good habit from my days as a reviewer), but it felt awkward. But I imagine this feeling would pass pretty quick if it was considered a norm.

POS technology is only the beginning: iPad menus rock.

One of the restaurants that adopted POS technology went one step further. At LIFT, the menus are iPads (and better than their website). It is the most amazing experience. The menu is divided into sections — appetizers, lunch, dinner, dessert, wines, etc. You pick a section, scan the list, and then pull up a picture and description of the dish you are interested in before placing your order.

I can't remember the last time comparing and picking a dish was so easy. There were no guesses or surprises. It also helped establish one of the best first pre-meal impressions of a restaurant ever.

The iPad menus really made my creative wheels spin too. There are so many remarkable things a restaurant can do with social technology and take it to the next step. What if customers...

• could tap their smart phones to the menu and receive the menu app?
• could tap their smart phones and subscribe to a content rich blog attached to it?
• could tap their smart phones to enter a contest to win a free lunch?
• could order their meals or request specific seats before they arrived?
• could receive a survey the next day instead of trying to do it at the table?
• were invited to an upcoming special event or special menu sampling?

After just completing a two-year social media contract with a restaurant in Las Vegas, I can attest to the fact that although social media can deliver a return on investment (30-80 check-ins a month, noting that only about 10 percent of all people actually check-in), traditional social media models don't go far enough for restaurants. The primary reason is that they are too focused on impressions and captures (local searches, of all things) and not focused enough on the customers at the table.

Specifically, most restaurants are so comfortable with the old media model — impressions in magazines, phone books, etc. — they have been conditioned to think that applying old media rules to new media is all that can be done. Sure, some of them receive a lift if they implement a social media program, but the real magic of a successful restaurant in the future will not be social media as another marketing silo.

Restaurants that look at technology as an extension of their physical location rather than a means to attract people to a physical location will be the ones with the best bottom line. And those that do it in the United States now (while the recession still makes people think twice about eating out) will be light years ahead of their competitors in the future. This post only scratches the surface.

By the way, I would like to add something about LIFT, given they helped inspire the story. Hands down it was the best meal, best service, and best experience of every restaurant we visited while in Vancouver. And as someone who once wrote dining reviews of some of the finest establishments in Las Vegas, I would have given them five stars, perfection. And yes, the harbor view helped too.
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