Customisation and automation – Retail Insider

When standing in-line at the service counter of my local Pret A Manger waiting for my typical morning order of a cappuccino recently, it struck me how often I seem to be the only person requesting a bog-standard coffee. There are a cornucopia of options now being requested with various milk types, syrup flavours, decaf this and skinny that, and on top of this the cold drink options now have myriad varieties. 

My experience is not unusual because Starbucks has found its customised cold beverages now account for an incredible 75% of total drinks sales and 66% of all drinks now sold are customised in some form or another. Whatever happened to the standard latte and cappuccino? The world has massively embraced customisation in the world of coffee and also quick service restaurants (QSR).

Subway: allegedly 34 million variations.

One of the pioneers of the trend is Subway, which apparently boasts of the potential for 34 million sandwich combinations available in each of its stores when you consider the bread types, fillings, sauces and sandwich sizes etc. Many other food providers have recognised the appeal of offering such flexibility to customers. US chain IHOP boasts as many as 80% of its orders are customised and the appetite for this freedom has been lapped up by customers at the likes of Burger King and McDonald’s where self-service kiosks have certainly helped fuel the ability to add in extras and remove unappealing ingredients. 

In the old days, you’d often find a trail of gherkins outside McDonald’s from children removing them from their Big Macs. Today they simply tap on the kiosk to remove them before their burger is built and while they are tailoring their order, how about replacing that unappealing slippery vegetable with a crispy hash brown. Clearly customers are “Lovin’ It” because as many as 71% of people now expect companies to offer personalised options and 61% become frustrated if they are not given the freedom to tailor their orders, according to research from McKinsey & Company.

McDonald’s: No more leftover gherkins

But this is beginning to cause some serious issues for foodservice companies. Staff shortages and the increased complexity that customisation brings to the production process in the kitchen is leading to the greater propensity for incorrect orders and also the nemesis of fast food brands – queues building up in their restaurants. 

To address the issue there is plenty of innovation taking place. A variety of brands including Chipotle with its Chipotlanes, Chick-fil-A and Taco Bell are promoting digital ordering ahead of collection (often linked to their drive-thrus) that enables much better scheduling in the kitchens and helps reduce customer indecision when ordering in-store and therefore avoids queues building up.

The other aspect that is of great interest to foodservice companies is the introduction of automation. Chipotle is piloting a robotic arm called “Chippy” to fry its chips and here in the UK, robotic kitchen automation firm Karakuri has just launched its automated frying product and is about to embark on a trial with a major fast casual chain before a potential roll-out of the technology that assists stretched kitchen teams.

Starbucks has gone down this route with its Siren System that automates much of the drink production process and alleviates the growing issues around the tailoring of options by improving efficiency. Take the grande mocha Frappuccino (whatever that is!), which took a barista 87 seconds and 16 steps to produce. This has been reduced by the Siren technology to a mere 36 seconds and 13 steps. 

The Mocha Frappucchino in all its glory

It’s not just about technology though because Subway is attempting to put the customisation genie back in the bottle through a much simpler initiative. In its latest menu refresh in the US in July it launched its “Subway Series” of 12 chef-created sandwiches that sought to reduce the reliance on its custom offer. In early tests Subway stated as many as 50% of diners ordered the new sandwich builds and that customers could expect more of these “set” product creations to be introduced in the future. 

The balance between customisation and efficiency looks set to be an important consideration for the QSR and fast casual brands as the industry seeks to give the customer what they want while also recognising there are finite resources when it comes to employee numbers and wage levels.

Glynn Davis, editor, Retail Insider

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.

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