Busy Delis: A Touch of Self-Help


If a touch-screen kiosk could alleviate the service bottleneck at your busy deli, would you view it as a promising technological partner, a healthy competitor, or another step toward the destruction of interpersonal communications in an automated world?

Customers are now using a variety of new self-service technologies in a wide range of retail stores. Home Depot says a whopping 34 percent of sales are being rung through self-service register lanes at the half of its stores with the equipment. More than 70 percent of Delta, Northwest, and Southwest airlines’ passengers now check in and obtain boarding passes at self-service kiosks.

Self-service register systems, starting at around $100,000, aren’t on the radar of most natural foods cooperatives. Less expensive, service-enhancing technologies are already common, however, such as the Healthnotes kiosks in health and body care departments.

In busy foodservice departments, touch-screen order terminals are the latest entrée being served to increase sales and improve customer service. In 2003, more than $1 billion in sales was generated through grocery deli kiosks at such chains as Stop & Shop and H.E.B. Use of the machines is growing so rapidly that IHL Consulting Group, a firm specializing in information technology for retailers, projects deli kiosk sales will top $18 billion next year.

At $10,000 a pop, the kiosks are not appropriate for small delis. But for larger foodservice departments serving greater numbers of customers during daily rush periods, the financial investment may be easy to justify. Stories abound of deli kiosks in high-volume stores generating sales increases of 15 to 40 percent.

As a customer I regularly walk away from overly busy service counters for lack of time or patience. Given the choice, I’ll take an available human over a machine—but I’ll also take a machine over a long wait or poor service. Just as HealthNotes delivers value-added service to nutrition department customers, deli kiosks will complement and make more efficient some customer service interactions—without eliminating service jobs.

If one busy store’s experience is any indication, a lack of trained service staff interacting with the technology can create as many new challenges as it solves, however. Mollie Stone’s Market in Sausalito, California, one of an upscale chain of seven stores, recently removed its deli kiosk because, as deli manager Mark Lovi says, “we couldn’t keep up with the orders.” Billed as “Xpress Deli” by the vendor, Intermedia Kiosks, the technology certainly made placing an order faster for customers—who then expected the food to be ready just as quickly. The department has difficulty finding and maintaining a service staff large enough to handle its already busy customer traffic.

“We struggle with getting enough people as it is” to staff and serve deli customers, says store manager Angelo Damante. Having a deli kiosk generating orders from customers even more rapidly during a rush “wasn’t worth it.” Without adding staff to make more sandwiches more quickly, the kiosk only exacerbated the store’s service problems.

However, a regular lunchtime customer of Mollie Stone’s says the wait for her sandwich used to be just as long as it is now. But she “really liked” the kiosk not only because “it made placing an order much quicker and easier—I didn’t have to compete to get a clerk’s attention.” Most important of all, the customer says, “My sandwich was always right [with the kiosk]. Now, it’s just like [it was] before: about half the time my sandwich comes out wrong.”

10 points for foodservice improvement


Improving some key aspects of your customers’ service experience will go a long way in preparing you to avoid needing a kiosk, to compete against a competitor’s, or to resolve new challenges that come with incorporating a kiosk. By focusing on what a machine will never be able to do, you’ll either come to love the technological partnership, or you will successfully inoculate your deli from a future customer who states a preference for the efficiency of a machine over a human.

1. If you have crowds, install a take-a-number system. What you lose in “putting a number on someone” is more than made up for by that customer not having to worry about whether your busy staff members know exactly who is in line in front of whom. Want something more upscale? With a customer accessible computer and a video display screen you can install a name-based cue system with a screen (like the one pictured on page 24 from an Apple Computer store).

2. Review your physical layout from a customer’s perspective to improve the clarity and flow of your service line up. Program by program, foot by linear foot, review the experience you’re offering your busiest lunch rush customers to see if there are ways to make their buying experience faster and easier. Would establishing a small “order here” station make things more clear? Are you doing the best you can at servicing customers at that far-away smoothie station? Would installing line control ropes convert the lunchtime throngs into a well-formed line? Are plates and packaging materials well organized and in the right places?

3. Think about what information your customers want as well as what they need. Upgrade your signage and labeling to head off as many common questions as possible. Could you consolidate and make prettier that menu board with 27 beverages in three sizes each at 81 possible prices? Do you have an actual sandwich menu or just a “build your own” list of ingredients? Do your product labels list ingredients in the order of predominance? A busy customer on a half-hour lunch break is not going to wait in a five-minute line just to ask whether your tuna salad is made with pickle relish.

4. Look closely at your grab-and-go program to see if you should offer additional products focused on meeting the needs of rush customers. Consider offering more pre-made sandwiches or making room for top-selling items you typically merchandise in your service case. Use some self-service merchandising space to move some customers out of your busy line for full service.

5. Have alternate service strategies for slow periods versus rush periods. At 3:30 p.m. it works well to have one deli server stay with a customer through every part of his or her order—from making a sandwich and scooping a service case salad to frothing a mocha, for example. With a bustling lunch crowd, you’ll serve more people more efficiently by stationing staff at your busiest programs and having a designated order taker. Play “one-on-one defense” during slow periods, and “team defense” during rush periods.

6. Review your systems, service and training documents, along with the work tools you provide staff. Service staff who are the right “motivational fit” for the job—in the language of my colleague, Carolee Colter—are the people most capable of becoming outstanding performers. (See “Motivational Fit: Hiring the right person for the job,” CG #98, Jan.-Feb. 2002.) Are you providing the kind of training that makes it possible for those who are a step shy in motivation and perseverance to rise to your standards and excel in your department? Do sandwich makers have well-organized pre-printed pads that allow them to quickly order and produce every sandwich efficiently and accurately?

7. Make sure staff become very familiar with all your foods—and use their service experiences to explore customers’ tastes, sampling liberally. Kiosks can put words and pictures on a screen to suggest add-on sales. A kiosk cannot get to know customers’ taste buds well enough to put the right homemade food sample in their hands.

8. Become adept at terminating staff conversations in the presence of customers in order to invest in a genuine greeting. Eye contact, a smile, and a verbal greeting provide the moments and platform necessary for a server to choose an appropriate follow-up approach. Passively waiting to see if a customer chooses to ask for a server’s attention is not a strategy for actively engaging in a service interaction. Teach staff to quickly size up the difference between customers who are open to receiving a full “performance” versus those who simply want efficient, competent service. The only thing worse than an absent server is a server who won’t leave you alone.

9. In the face of a customer complaint, teach each server to go beyond being a sounding board to become a fearless problem solver. Choose to uphold an ideal of not letting any customer leave unhappy without your best efforts. A problem presents a unique opportunity to cement a customer relationship, on a level even more meaningful than when things go just as expected. Be sure that staff understand that how a problem is handled is more important to a customer than that there was a problem to begin with. Making sure every customer appreciates your service enough to come back is worth much more than the cost of giving away some food to fix a problem.

10. Hold precious the personal service exchanges your department staff have with your customers. Invest in programs to continually advance your service team’s ability to excel. Discuss and role-play everyday interactions, as well as more challenging ones. Become better at reading customers and developing a staff repertoire of strategies for engaging with customers.

Imagining the deli service future


You can view foodservice kiosk technology as potentially disrupting the personal connection you build with your customers, or you can view it as an opportunity to enhance and better accommodate your busy customers. Either way, the day after one of your customers has a great experience using your competitor’s kiosk and is complaining about bad service in your deli is the day you start losing to technology instead of making it work for you. And, different from airport kiosks that are replacing airline service workers, you couldn’t buy a dozen deli kiosks to slash half your service labor budget.

The impact of this technology on our ability to serve customers isn’t any more clear than without it. But it offers large possibilities for busy delis and an opportunity to refresh our efforts to improve the service experience we offer our customers. In the end, exceptional service is every natural foods department’s best asset and fuel for growing its business—whether from a purely human service interaction or in concert with new technological applications.

I’ve painted a picture of how the technology can complement an exceptional service commitment in a busy foodservice department. And I can imagine a nightmare moment in which the least motivated, poorly trained deli employee tells the only customer in the store to “walk over and place your order with the machine because I’m about to go on break.”

We will always need great people to interact with our precious customers.

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