Beware Order Ahead

May 11, 2017

Usually I'm the one pushing to move forward. I'm trying to get operators to ask the question: 'how can we better serve our customers?' I'm encouraging general managers to evaluate processes and offerings in order to uncover areas that would improve with a change or investment in new technology. I have met many successful operators with this outlook. However, there is one technology I think our industry needs to wait and consider a bit more. That is the idea of order ahead. 

From idea to reality 

For some time now, the possibility of employees ordering what they would like to eat in time for the operator to have it made and/or delivered has been floating around the industry. Since micro markets came onto the scene, it has been discussed as a real possibility, as ordering could be done at the kiosk and remotely sent to the warehouse. In fact, some vending operators already let employees at locations order bulk products, such as K-cups, and deliver them at the next service, right to the employee's desk. The examples I know of are all prepackaged items that the operators already have in stock. Taking it to the next level with a sandwich made to order or similar would leave the industry in the same difficulty as Starbucks and others already trying to make order ahead a reality.  

PYMNTs.com recently covered fast-casual bakery and café chain Au Bon Pain and it's launch of mobile order ahead. The article shares some valuable lessons learned that micro market operators will have to consider if (or when) they add the order ahead feature either from the kiosk or a mobile device. First and foremost is a system that is tied to all the current promotions, showing the same price for promotional items online as customers would find in the micro market. Another, especially if the item is a sandwich, salad, or other entrée, is getting the order to product pickers, or if made to order, cooks. The prekitting and order assembly systems have to talk to each other and everything has to be up and running to make the order happen in a timely fashion, because timing is everything. Saving time is the key selling point for order ahead service. Customers are promised they can skip the line and get the items they want practically delivered. Operators will have it easier than Au Bon Pain and Starbucks, as the time from the user ordering an item to when it can actually be prepared won't be as critical. In cafes, this preparation has to be scientific and take into account high volume times and custom orders. 

The next logical step 

Don't get me wrong. I love this idea. And I see it working really well. I would love if my office offered the ability to order an entrée, even the day before, and have it delivered the next morning. It would hit all of today's trends: choice, personalization, convenience, etc. The problem is delivering on the experience. Large companies like Starbucks and Au Bon Pain are still figuring out how to perfect the order ahead model and how to avoid the mistakes that make customers shy away from the system, and even the store due to a poor customer experience. We don't want this for micro markets, one of today's most exciting and lucrative services. So while I see made to order being a lot closer to reality than it was, I think the industry isn't quite ready to jump in with both feet. We need to assess what others have done and see how we can guarantee a system that delivers on the promises we offer before its launched. That is how we will win in the battle for the daytime refreshment dollar.  

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