The Digital Pantry

Today’s the day we turn the clocks forward, which means you lost an hour of sleep – or an hour of productivity, depending on your viewpoint. Either way, it’s just what you didn’t need, right?

Consumers are already time-starved and sleep-deprived, and grocery shopping can be a dreaded chore. Millennial consumers, many of whom are just setting up independent households and starting families, have been a disruptive element, also, with limited loyalty as well as limited budgets.

IMAGE CREDIT: Anthony Munoz

Online grocery shopping, home delivery service and digital tools for pantry management may provide relief to both shoppers and marketers.

Schwan’s has been making home deliveries of frozen foods since the 1950’s, and they’ve become a major e-tailer of frozen foods. Peapod was one of the first online home-delivery companies, and they now offer curbside pickup and have placed coded transit ads that act as virtual stores.

IMAGE CREDIT: FastCoDesign.com

Other companies have sprung up to service metro areas like New York (FreshDirect) or Los Angeles (Spud). National retailers are in on the action, too, as shoppers turn to WalMart, Target, Walgreen’s, and Amazon for non-perishable groceries, paper goods and pet supplies.

Although online shopping tends to curb in-store impulse buying, basket sizes are larger because there is a greater mix of pack sizes and categories available. Marketers can attract online grocery shoppers with easily navigable sites, improved search, and shared shopping lists – and all of these can be delivered at desktop, or, even better, via mobile.

Apps from stores like Walgreen’s and Wal-Mart use geo-fencing to help direct consumers around the retail environment, offer coupons and refill prescriptions. Ahold, which owns Stop & Shop and Peapod, has begun rolling out an app that combines loyalty rewards and mobile checkout. Once the consumer launches the app, it presents offers based on her purchase history and allows her to skip the checkout counter by scanning items with her mobile phone.

Consumers also use mobile apps for couponing and grocery list generation/pantry management. GroceryIQ, Out of Milk and Grocery Gadget include features like integrated couponing, list sharing, and the ability to scan barcodes in your pantry so you can keep track of what you need to – or like to – buy.

IMAGE CREDIT: Overlapps.com

Appliance manufacturers are rolling out more and more “smart” appliances, like Samsung’s (admittedly overpriced) smart fridge. The internet of things is already here. Think about it: if we were to combine a smart fridge that could communicate with printed electronics on intelligent packaging to send you a mobile message when the milk is about to expire, or could understand when we’re out of apples, or was integrated with a database of favorite recipes…

IMAGE CREDIT: Ashley Legg

Has technology helped in your pantry? Let me know in the comments.

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Tablets at tabletop

Last week I went to lunch at UNO’s with a few co-workers. None of us had been in awhile, and we all immediately noticed the new touchscreen on the tabletop. The hostess explained that this device, called a Ziosk, would allow us to order drinks, appetizers and desserts, and pay our bill. It has a few free apps, and access to games for a dollar. We saw a family at the next table take advantage of this feature – crayons and coloring menus are so over.

Ziosk at UNO's

Customers can buy access to apps, order drinks, and pay their bills.

My own dining companions hoped that the server had wiped down the touchscreen (flu season, you know), but also observed that we take the same risk by opening a menu. So, moving on: I noticed that drinks were ordered more quickly via Ziosk, but not necessarily delivered any faster.

Other chain restaurants like Applebee’s, Chili’s, TGI Friday’s, P.F. Chang’s, and Chevy’s FreshMex are also using or testing tabletop mobile devices. From the restaurant’s perspective, benefits include more ways to upsell and feature relevant menu items, faster table turns, increased guest satisfaction, and an opportunity to gather data about consumers who join loyalty programs. From the guest view, devices like the Ziosk and the e-Tab offer convenience and entertainment. Win-win?

Maybe. Some parents dislike seeing their kids glued to a screen during mealtimes, and have pointed out that a single screen is less than ideal with more than one child at the table. It’s just one more thing to squabble over. Other fast-casual restaurant patrons are sighing about yet another technological distraction that keeps us from having an actual conversation.

Touchscreen devices seem to be appropriate for fast-casual restaurants, where the emphasis is often on novelty as well as convenience. Will they replace personal service? Probably not. Wayne Vandewater, VP of learning and development for Applebee’s, told the Wall Street Journal, “Food is easy to copy, a building is easy to copy.” And, judging from the proliferation of tabletop touchscreens, so is technology.

Vandewater notes, however, “…it’s not easy to copy our people.” Even as fast-casual chains invest in high-tech solutions, they are re-training servers in the art of “situational selling” and table reading. Consumer research from twenty years ago is valid today: food service employees are still the most important marketing touchpoint.

Have you used a touchscreen at your restaurant table? Tell us about it in the comments.