What's your standard fast food order

When fast food customers order on the screen, they buy 30 percent more

McDonald’s unexpectedly discovered a sales driver with touchscreens and a mobile phone app. The digitization of the ordering process is efficient - and tempts you to extra portions.

So far, digitization has avoided the catering industry. But that is changing radically right now. Because sales can be massively increased if you rely on mobile phones and screens. The pioneer was once again the fast food chain McDonald’s. Five years ago she started to equip her branches with oversized order touch screens, known in the industry as kiosks, on a grand scale.

There are now many branches in which there is only one cash register operated by a person, but a dozen touchscreens. The ordering process is self-explanatory and resembles a video game: Extra cheese? No onions? Tap, tap. Immediately after payment you hold the burger in your hand. In 2018, then McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook said in an interview that sales were increasing thanks to touchscreens. He attributed this to the fact that no one was behind you in line. "When people have more time, they choose more."

McDonald’s Switzerland reports that there are now 1,300 order kiosks in the 170 Swiss branches. Because it made the checkout area smaller, the kitchens could be enlarged. Today more guests can be served at the same time than in the past, writes the burger chain. This is putting an entire industry under pressure.

Our control mechanisms are failing

Above all, digitization in gastronomy means: new forms of ordering. For the mobile phone, for the computer or even for the restaurant, in the form of the touchscreen kiosks. The company Menu from Zug has specialized in the development of digital ordering systems.

It works like shopping on the Internet: Menu connects the different channels: mobile phone app, computer or touchscreen. Orders from delivery providers such as Eat.ch, Uber Eats or Smood - they are an important driver of digitization in the catering industry - can also be integrated. Everything then comes together in the cash register system of a restaurant.

“There is a huge push towards digitization. We get an incredible number of inquiries, ”says Karl Heinz Koch, CEO of Menu. Among other things, his company is currently converting all branches in South America and the Caribbean for the American chain Burger King. In contrast to McDonald’s, he reveals figures: “The order value is 30% higher than if you order from person to person. We see this in both mobile phone apps and kiosks, ”says Koch.

On the computer, the order value is almost twice as high as with a waiter made of flesh and blood. But this effect is distorted: Often we order at the desktop for more than one person and have the food delivered to us.

"Shame is a very important factor"

We're not hungrier when we buy our food at the push of a button. But we are less inhibited. Experience shows that we like to be tempted into extras: another dessert or a large drink instead of the normal size? That is clicked on in a flash.

“Shame is a very important factor when ordering food. If you order two pizzas, a cola and a tiramisu, you immediately have the pressure to justify yourself, ”says Natalie Zumbrunn-Loosli, director of the competence center for nutritional psychology in Zurich.

This is where the mind control effect plays a role. We think: "What do you think the other person thinks of me?" There is also what is known as body checking: "When we face a person, we compare ourselves immediately," says Zumbrunn-Loosli. We would do this unconsciously and quite independently of our own figure.

However, only when we are faced with a real person. "All these forms of self-and external control are eliminated when ordering on the mobile phone or on the screen," says the nutrition psychologist. The consumer runs the risk of ordering more than he actually likes to eat.

But our trained control mechanisms don't just let us down. We are also more easily duped when ordering digitally. And through so-called nudging, a term from behavioral economics. "That's what we talk about when we try to push people in a certain direction," says Andreas Herrmann, professor of economics at the University of St. Gallen (HSG), "you could also say that we encourage people to make a decision."

It's easier to cheat online

For example, people tend to go for the middle option, such as the menu with 20 pizzas. We don't take the empty Margherita. But also not the expensive truffle pizza. If the landlord wants to get the guest to leave more money in his restaurant, he puts an even more expensive pizza on the menu.

"It is easier online to make the pizza scale more exclusive and thus to shift what feels like the middle," says Herrmann. You can work with images, the selection is clearer and the customer is less stressed because he has more time to decide. There are many such tricks and every clever salesperson knows them too, says the economics professor. "However, these nudgings can be systematically programmed online."

Restaurateurs are particularly sensitive to the accusation that they are working in a sluggish industry. Understandable: Your working days are long, the entrepreneurial risk is high and the returns are small. One food trend chases the next. But just because the menus change doesn't mean the processes have changed. In many ways, the business works as it has done for ages.

Traditional beers doubt that digitization will prevail beyond the fast food sector. “Nobody goes to the restaurant because they are hungry or thirsty. You want to meet people there and exchange ideas, ”says gastro consultant Sven Weber. Such ordering systems are certainly useful for large chains in central locations.

Most famous burger in the world

How relevant is the Big Mac?

Nothing stands for fast food like the Big Mac. The iconic double-decker continues to stir hearts 52 years after its launch. In Australia, its inventor McDonald’s dragged the local Hungry Jacks chain to court last week. This had brought a burger called Big Jack on the market. That can't be, because there can only be one. The Big Mac was at the beginning of a development which, like the tobacco industry, brought the fast food industry into disrepute: supersizing, i.e. the slow increase in portion sizes.

At the same time, the Big Mac became a symbol of globalization. Because he was to be found almost everywhere in the world as early as the 1980s, the British “Economist” launched a purchasing power index with his name in 1986. Incidentally, according to the “Big Mac Index”, the Swiss franc is currently overvalued by 20%. In the last few years, however, the Big Mac has struggled with a phenomenon it has never seen before: a lack of attention. Gourmet burger chains bothered him. Suddenly there were big burgers with high-quality meat and rolls that tasted like something. In 2016, McDonald’s found that only one in five millennials had ever tried a Big Mac. Since then, McDonald’s has been testing new preparations without changing the classic - for example with fresh instead of frozen minced biscuits. You can also personalize every single burger layer on the McDonald’s touchscreens. Most customers would choose the original, however, says McDonald’s Switzerland. In this country, the cheeseburger is the most popular McDonald’s product anyway.

However, since many companies had a thin capital base, they could not afford such a thing. And he doubts that these systems make everything easier: "If you order the wrong one, you will immediately have additional work." Weber, himself a restaurateur, refers to the Swiss service culture. "There is also a little pride in it."

In fact, the system from the Zug company Menu is tailored to so-called quick service restaurants. So those in which you are served quickly. They are clearly in the minority in Switzerland: Menu CEO Karl Heinz Koch estimates their share in all businesses at around 20%. The company therefore sees more potential abroad. In England, where there is generally less home-cooked food, over half of all restaurants are fast-food restaurants.

Not just for fast food

However, Koch emphasizes that table service can also be mapped in his system. Instead of a waiter taking the order, guests at the table can make their wishes via mobile phone. The food still has to be served. But at least a trip to the table is saved this way.

In the coming Corona winter, this will be interesting for pickling in ski areas, for example. There the guests usually mingle in a long barrel street. If you now order the meat loaf with French fries at the table, the crowd can be avoided with a manageable additional effort.

According to estimates, only between 5 and 10% of all orders are currently placed online - including sales from delivery services, which have recently been aggressively entering the market. In the tourism industry, which is related to gastronomy, digitization is already much more advanced. Hotels and recently also ski passes are booked online by default. So there is a lot of potential for a digital revolution in restaurant kitchens.

There is only one thing that humans are ahead of the machine when it comes to tips. "Personal relationships have value," says HSG behavioral economist Andreas Herrmann. You expect a computer to work. He cannot expect any extra reward from us. A nice waiter or a skilled barista does. "With a person we are ready to be generous."