Tablet for 2: Technology could cost servers their jobs

DENVER - Paying for a restaurant tab the same way we pay for gas, airline tickets and online purchases is a reality.

Pay at the table tablets are now a fixture at many Chili's restaurants in and around Denver. The computers allow guests to browse the menu, order and pay without the assistance of a server.

Austen Mulinder, President and CEO of Ziosk, the company that makes the tablets says the technology is improving the overall dining experience for customers.

"When the guests come into the restaurants they come in to be served," Mulinder said.

The computer can essentially free up time for servers, allowing them to provide better service to customers.

"The idea is that one, the guest is happier, but two the server is actually spending less time in the back of the restaurant," Mulinder explained. "They are investing service time to improve the overall guest experience."

The tablet will mean faster service. There's no need to wait for a server to bring your check or take your order. But they'll still be there to deliver your food to your table. Computers can't do that. At least, not yet.

9NEWS asked Mulinder if shifting some server responsibilities to computers could mean a need for less servers.

Mulinder responded by saying, "What you'll find typically is the restaurant concepts are trying to give a better experience to their guests and make them come back more often as opposed to they're just trying to save money on labor. That's not the focus."

However, Darrin Duber-Smith, marketing professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, believes the direction of the industry, like others, is cost-cutting.

"You're going to be able to order when you want. You're going to be able to pay when you want. So that's going to enhance the customer experience," Duber-Smith said. "But ultimately the technology is going to replace labor."

After all, labor is expensive.

"The more expensive that labor gets, the less likely business is to use labor," Duber-Smith said. "So if you're going to enhance the customer experience and reduce your costs with technology, certainly every restaurant ultimately is going to adopt this."

Of course that will take time. Duber-Smith compares it to the streamlining the airline industry went through. Remember the gradual, but dramatic change in the airline industry?

Ticket counters and gates used to be staffed with numerous employees. That's not the cause anymore. There are far fewer gate agents and self-check kiosks now do the jobs that people used to do.

"If you look back 10 [or] 12 years ago those were fully staffed and there weren't any kiosks," Duber-Smith said. "I think ultimately what had to happen is the consumers had to get used to touch screen technology."

That technology has been around for a long time now – and Americans are certainly comfortable with touchscreens.

"Now that we're used to it, I think people are going to be very comfortable and much more comfortable paying themselves [and] not having to have to hand a credit over to someone else," Duber-Smith said.

Consumers will have more control at restaurants. But there will be less control over a changing economy.

"Being able to order when they want, being able to get out of the place when they want, pay their bill when they want: Certainly this is what they call creative destruction," Duber-Smith stated. "We've seen technology do this in a variety of different industries. The big concern for me is that most of the jobs that have been created in the last five or six years have been food service related. So this technology is definitely a pretty big threat to the labor in the industry. [It means] fewer jobs, definitely over the long run."

"Certainly some people are worried about that," Mulinder said. "What we've seen so far is that, for the server, they are actually getting a higher tip than they used to get because they are having more satisfied guests - and in many cases the tip is being placed on a higher check."

He remains focused on the opportunities for improving guest dining experiences, explaining that the entertainment component of the tablet is bringing more customers in to dine at restaurants with the new technology.

He says the trivia and other games on the tablet offer dining groups shared experiences – so they don't have their faces buried in their own mobile phones.

"If you go to restaurants where there's no Ziosk, then quite often people are buried away in their phones," Mulinder said. "What we're trying to do with the Ziosk is provide more heads up entertainment. So Instead of everyone at the table being buried in their own phone we're providing communal entertainment, whether it's trivia or games that the parents can play with their kids."

"Actually, there's a very, very high conversion rate of tables that want to experience new content they haven't seen before. And if they come into the restaurant once every four to six weeks, there are new games that they may not have seen before."

Enter - a possible flaw in the economic model. Restaurants are interested in making money. Turning tables is a necessary component of that.

"I don't think anybody really wants people camping out there for 3 or 4 hours unless they're going to spend money," Duber-Smith said. "But I think the point is that there are certainly some nice entertainment aspects to it that distract your kids [and] that sort of thing."

"Most people have their smart phones and their tablets and they're doing that anyway," Duber-Smith explained. "What this is really doing is enhancing the customer experience by speeding things up."

And Americans do seem to want to speed things up. That kind of empowerment is something that cannot be ignored.

"I think this guy [Mulinder] is in a great business and he certainly doesn't want to come across as a job killer," Duber-Smith said. "But in every sector technology is killing these jobs. There's just no doubt about it."

On the other hand, it could mean opportunities for new, different jobs to be created.

"But they won't be the semi-skilled, low-skilled labor that we're used to kind of relying on," Duber-Smith said. "A lot of those jobs will go away. [There's] no doubt about it."

By fall, the tablets are expected to be in every Chili's across the country.

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)


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