In past economic downturns, I’ve usually seen companies switch from revenue and service enhancement technologies to those that will save money by increasing operational or supply chain efficiencies.
That was a popular strategy—until now.
The last slowdown prompted most companies to focus on back-of-the-house technologies, such as those supporting better above-store reporting, human resources management, inventory, and ordering and sales planning and analysis. In the five years since those doldrums, many companies with improving fortunes have invested in system upgrades, deploying wireless networks and moving to Web-enabled applications for many functions. The result: More than a few foodservice companies already have all the technology they need to save money.
But saving money won’t drive reluctant spenders through the front door of restaurants struggling to rebuild guest traffic.
The good news is that since 2003 we’ve seen the development and deployment of new technologies that connect businesses with their customers. This covers everything from online ordering to cell phone ordering to automated guest response and survey systems.
As potentially business friendly technology like Web-enabled cell phones and PDAs has spread into the hands of consumers and workers, much of the spending on information technology, or IT, by business has been associated with e-marketing, labor-scheduling and training applications.
So where does this leave us today?
Clearly, most operators are cutting spending. While POS technologies still need to be deployed, some of the peripherals that might have been acquired at the same time are being pushed into different budget cycles. But for those operators who invested in wireless access at the unit level and who focused on Web-based applications and even moved to hosted data and application environments, there are still opportunities to further leverage technologies or deploy new ones.
The movement of many applications to hosted environments has helped lower the cost of integrating various technologies. The cost of such integration, which used to be one of the largest expenses tied to implementing new technology, is now much lower, as wireless networks have eliminated cabling at the unit level and the library of standard application and database interfaces begins to reach critical mass.
So the growth opportunities within our industry for the foreseeable future will be those tied to technologies that can either work with existing POS and back-office systems, those that can run on standard PCs for a lower investment cost, and those leveraging Web-based applications. Another key consideration when buying in this economy: Can the technology be used for multiple applications without the need for many deployment plans, serial onsite configuration sessions, frequent rounds of employee training or substantially higher unit-level maintenance requirements?
The above means, for instance, that if you roll out a POS application, it ideally should be able to run on a fixed terminal and a handheld terminal for order entry and pay-at-table functions and be compatible with online-ordering and mobile-device ordering systems, if not the basis for those systems.
New technologies that require customized hardware and infrastructure to run in the restaurant will largely be put on hold for the foreseeable future—unless they are absolutely proven to save money or build revenue. However, it will be much easier to make a return-on-investment case for multitasking hardware or software.
Operators’ IT investments in recent years mean that even as the economy worsens, they won’t have to “stay the course” in terms of technology strategies in the months ahead, and that is very positive. Advances in foodservice information systems, the whole and total focus of FS/TEC, gives the industry the means to enhance the guest experience and staff training.
Tough times are IT times, and the IT of today may just help the industry avoid even tougher times tomorrow.