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Automation in restaurants: the key takeaways

Published on 18/04/2024 by David Jani

Getting a takeaway or going out for a meal at the weekend is a must for many Brits. However, technology increasingly influences how orders are made and collected. Restaurant automation technology can make the experience of getting a meal out simpler but is its adoption something that can win businesses customers?

Customer service and automated technologies for restaurants and takeaways

Convenience is a major factor in going out for a meal or getting a takeaway. As time has gone on it has become ever simpler to order something to eat from restaurants. Many restaurants digitised during the COVID-19 pandemic to offer takeaway services and remain afloat during shutdowns, which has left a lasting legacy. The use of restaurant point of sale (POS) systems and automation tech has been crucial to making the experience of ordering food more seamless. However, this relies on the systems being reliable and their use being accepted by consumers.

GetApp once again turned to a sample of 301 UK consumers with experience in using retail automation technology to find out how customers across the country interact with and feel about these solutions. Having looked at the effectiveness of automation technology in supermarkets and retail in our last report, this article will focus on the use of these tools in restaurants. 

We found that with supermarkets, consumers were quite accepting of newer methods of paying for and selecting items. Does the same apply to the methods used within the restaurant industry?

The full methodology for this study can be found at the bottom of this page.

Click and collect gets the thumbs up from takeaway customers

Once upon a time, it was necessary to order in person or phone a restaurant to get a meal delivery or takeaway. However, today it is increasingly a task managed exclusively on a smartphone.

One of the major ways this can happen is through click and collect systems. This refers to technology that allows customers to order a meal online via an app or web portal before coming to pick up the prepared food in person.

Amongst our entire UK sample, 57% say they have used click and collect for retail and would use it again. Additionally, 18% haven’t yet tried click and collect but say they would be interested in using it in the future, demonstrating potential for growth in the use of this technology.

We asked this subgroup of respondents about their preferences when using the click and collect. From this, we observed that it was most common for consumers to consider this technology for quick service restaurants such as takeaway. Over half (57%) of the sample say they would use the technology in this setting. This was consistent for respondents who lived in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

Graph showing likely use of click and collect technology in retail

There was, however, a distinct difference between the openness of click and collect between quick service restaurants and more conventional table service restaurants. In total, only 16% of those interested in using the tech say they would be most likely to use them at table-service restaurants. It appears a little more common for urban consumers to utilise click and collect when buying food from table-service restaurants. This is most likely due to the proximity of customers to the places they are ordering from. 

Nevertheless, it is clear from the findings that click and collect seems best to use for grab-and-go style food outlets, which rely on convenience over in-store experience. Therefore it can help to consider this discrepency when considering whether this type of automation is right for your business. 

Avoiding a ‘McDisaster’

There have been notable cases of restaurant automation technology going down and causing major disruption for hungry customers, while costing companies sales. For example, McDonalds suffered a considerable outage in March 2024, caused by a ‘configuration change’ in their IT system. The resulting fault left customers unable to order food through the company app and unable to use the in-store POS system. 

Just days after the McDonald's incident, Greggs also suffered a major interruption to its ability to process card payments. This forced the popular bakery chain to close some shops and only accept cash and chip and pin payments in others. 

Major disruptions like this can be costly for a business and affect customer trust in technological solutions for payment and ordering. It is therefore important to ensure that backup systems are in place to quickly revert settings back to a functional configuration and an up-to-date crisis management plan is available to help keep the business organised and stable. 

Customers have evident speed and service expectations 

We observed in our first report that supermarket shoppers tended to make trips last as little time as possible. The same can be seen with quick service restaurants in the graph below, where almost all respondents (89%) say they get in and out as quickly as possible when getting food and making a purchase.

graph customer restaurant experiences Q21

However, the opposite is true for table-service restaurants. This is perhaps unsurprising. Going out to eat in a restaurant usually isn’t as time-sensitive when compared to grabbing something from a fast food or quick service spot. What these findings do show, however, is that adjusting service speed to customer expectations is highly important. 

Did you know?

British consumers appear to be favouring quick food fixes such as takeaways over traditional restaurants. Card payment data from Barclays shows that takeaway and fast food spending rose in February 2024 by 5% compared to the previous month whilst traditional sit-down restaurants were 13% lower.

This suggests a potential opportunity for table-service restaurants looking to increase their revenues and sales. Offering a takeaway service via a click and collect system or online delivery service could help capitalise in falling footfall.

To handle takeaway orders, restaurants can use software tools such as food delivery management software, order management software, and online ordering tools to get started.

Good customer service is non-negotiable for restaurant-goers 

As well as speed, the level of attention and service one receives when shopping or eating out is also a factor restaurants should prioritise. We saw in our previous report that 87% of our sample thought customer service was important when shopping at a supermarket. 

With restaurants though, it turns out consumers place an even higher emphasis on their service experience than other retail businesses. In this context, 96% of respondents regarded service as “somewhat” to “very” important. 

Importance of customer service in restaurants for consumers

There can therefore be no doubt that restaurant owners, no matter whether they offer fast or slow types of dining, must ensure that quality service is delivered. Not doing so could earn a quick rebuke from customers and harm company reputation significantly.

People want automated tech to stay out of the kitchen

Another consideration when it comes to automation technology in restaurants is how they can influence different steps of the ordering process. From when an order is made, through the preparation process, up to delivery to the customer, technology can play a part.

However, how do consumers feel about automating these functions? Acceptance of these processes could play a part in whether they help or hinder a business.

As far as ordering goes, we found that most customers aren’t yet likely to use means such as artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots to place orders, as the graph below demonstrates.

Graph showing likelihood for consumers to order food using an AI tool
Did you know?

GetApp explored the question of AI affecting workers and automating jobs in our 2023 Career-Driven Learning in SMEs survey. During this study, we learned that 60% of respondents who used Learning Management System (LMS) platforms were strongly motivated to develop their skills due to the current development of AI in the workplace.

This may be a factor in the restaurant industry too, especially in cases where chatbots and AI are already starting to be used for tasks such as the ordering process. However, there appear to be a few areas of the dining out experience where customers prefer the human element.

For other functional purposes, we saw that consumers seemed comfortable with the idea of using automated systems instead of humans, as the graph below demonstrates. However, the majority find the idea of involving automation technology in food preparation unacceptable.

Level of acceptability of automation tech in restaurant environment

This data appears to show that automation technology in UK restaurants is a process that would need care in implementation. Consumers seem willing to accept technology that impacts service and even sanitation but under most circumstances, the robots should not be doing the cooking.  

Is AI coming for your food?

The food imagery used on a takeaway menu or online app can have a big impact on sales. However, with the rise of AI, does this mean now is the time to use computer-generated images on your menu? Research so far raises doubts. 

A joint study from Oxford University and the University of Naples Federico II studied this in practice. While respondents did react positively to undisclosed AI images of food when they were shown alongside real photos of food items, the effect did not apply when AI creations were clearly labelled so. Furthermore, a disclosure that a food photograph was genuine had a much stronger positive reaction overall. 

Real photos still appear to have the best impact with customers. These can still be enhanced and perfected with tools such as photo editing software to get the most from food photography for marketing. 

Key takeaway: tech works when it serves up speed and convenience 

Automation technology can have practical applications in restaurant settings. However, these have to live up to standards expected from restaurant-goers such as the speed of service and its overall quality.

Click and collect appears to work well for restaurant businesses offering takeaway services, given that the majority of respondents in our study expressly say they are most likely to use it in this setting. Yet, what was also clear is that whilst automation seems to work well in most of the restaurant customer’s journeys, the one place it shouldn’t be used is in the kitchen. 

Automation tech is gradually finding its way into more parts of retail and restaurant businesses. Adoption is a process that takes time and needs to be complimentary to the expectations of customers and the expertise of staff for it to work. There are a few aspects of automation technology in restaurants that consumers cannot tolerate, but in many cases, it may help businesses achieve the speed and service quality expected by consumers.   

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GetApp's 2024 Retail Automation Survey was conducted online in February 2024 among 301 respondents in the UK. The goal of the study was to learn how retailers and restaurants can address customer pain points with automation to ensure technology is adding efficiency to the customer experience. Respondents were screened for their experience with automation technologies at retail businesses and restaurants. 

This article may refer to products, programs or services that are not available in your country, or that may be restricted under the laws or regulations of your country. We suggest that you consult the software provider directly for information regarding product availability and compliance with local laws.

About the author

David is a Content Analyst for the UK, providing key insights into tech, software and business trends for SMEs. Cardiff University graduate. He loves traveling, cooking and F1.

David is a Content Analyst for the UK, providing key insights into tech, software and business trends for SMEs. Cardiff University graduate. He loves traveling, cooking and F1.