The widely publicized bottleneck issues Starbucks has suffered from a pile-up of mobile orders have highlighted an interesting dilemma for quick service restaurants and coffee chains looking to embrace digital self-service but concerned about the pressures this places on fulfilment.  So how do you walk the fine line between digital innovation, fulfilment and the human touch?  And can brands really be all things to all people – from the digital native Millennials and Gen Zs right through to the baby boomers and those who prefer or need face-to-face assistance?

Starbucks has generally been regarded as one of the industry’s trailblazers when it comes to mobile.  Their success has been well documented over the past couple of years but at the beginning of the year, the brand started to become a victim of its own success.  Reports of growing lines at stores during rush hours from mobile orders started to surface and grew to a point where, last month, the company announced plans to strengthen their fulfilment capabilities within existing stores as well as open dedicated mobile order and pay outlets to deal with the pile up of mobileorders.

The takeaway from this Starbucks story is that as brands start to recognize the consumer demand and expectation of mobile convenience, operators’ digital and operational strategy should not narrowly focus on mobile app activation, adoption and engagement but take a longer term view on where the tipping point in adoption should before mobile only stores should be considered, designed, built and opened.  Perhaps a first step might be to create mobile only pick-up areas within existing stores and better staff these points when it comes to physically preparing and making the food and drinks.

An interesting way to frame the problem is with the Theory of Constraint which states that every process has a bottleneck.  The fastest and most effective path to improved profitability is focusing improvement efforts on that constraint.  Before the advent of mobile self-service or indeed multi-channel self-service, the constraint in the fast casual and coffee sector was typically the number of points where orders could be taken.  The back of house could only go as fast as the orders were being taken by the till and in traditional order and payment is clunky and time consuming with guests ruminating over orders and turning bags upside down to gather change or search for their credit card.  With mobile, everyone’s device becomes a point of sale regardless of whether they’re on or off-premise, so suddenly the constraint becomes order fulfilment.  The industry needs to re-think how it can redesign it’s stores to place less emphasis on sales areas such as counters and till space and more emphasis on increasing the efficiency or space of its kitchens and pick-up areas.  Before everyone’s phone became a point of sale, the constraint of ordering actually acted as a throttle for incoming checks.  The challenge with mobile ordering is that if a brand isn’t fully prepared, there is a real chance of a build-up of orders along with growing queues and longer waits in store – the very thing mobile was created to avoid.

“…the hefty transition restaurants must make to this new way of life also presents a prime opportunity to fail spectacularly without the right preparation, foresight and planning.”  Russell Zack, SVP HelloWorld

McDonalds has made moves to pre-empt any mobile back-up issues with their mobile ordering solution by unveiling plans for curb side pick-up.  They’ve also set-out plans to redesign their kitchens to improve flow and speed up service.  Curb side pick-up is expected to ease lines within the restaurants itself as well as drive thru which accounts for 70% of all McDonalds customers.

So, it seems unstoppable forces such as smartphone adoption, the expectation of mobile self-service from the digital native generations as well as industry pressures like huge increases in labor costs and high levels of competition are causing a seismic shift from what we view as traditional quick service store layout and design to more streamlined, fulfilment-focussed sites where the emphasis is on speed of service and delivering already placed mobile or online orders.  This shift is likely to result in a spectrum of store styles to fulfil different needs as the market continues to evolve the way it interacts and transacts with businesses.  For example, a brand might deploy mobile only pick-up sites as well as hybrid stores that cater for dine-in and pick-up orders and for brands taking an initial step into a fulfilment-first outfit, they might look at making improvements to their kitchen operations and flow.  Whatever the path of evolution may be, one thing is certain, quick service restaurants need to prepare themselves for this huge change in consumer behaviour to avoid the bottlenecks and brand damage that will surely ensue if the right foresight and planning isn’t applied.