A number of organizations across the food and beverage value chain are recognizing the need to innovate with digital technologies and artificial intelligence. Companies are carrying out these transformations to generate savings, speed up processes, and ease their customers' ordering processes.

Some of the industry giants that are implementing new tools include Panera, Starbucks, and McDonald's. Panera was one of the first companies to take a risk on new supply chain solutions. In addition to online ordering, Panera has introduced kiosks into their restaurants and created a mobile app to change the way customers both order food and interact with the organization. Starbucks has taken things a step further. They've started to utilize Microsoft's machine learning capabilities for inventory-based order suggestions. McDonald's, for their part, recently acquired a personalization and decision optimization technology company in addition to investing in a mobile app developer.  These companies realize the importance of technology and are using it to their advantage to reap more profits and build better relationships with consumers.

Panera recognized the need to change their processes all the way back in 2012.  At the time most competitors took a "wait and see" approach rather than shaking things up with new tools. Panera took a step in a new direction by generating prototypes to fulfill their vision of a tech-enhanced customer experience. By 2015, new technologies and plans were rolling out across the organization.  Customers could now order online, order at an in-store kiosk, or use the mobile app. These new channels allowed the customers to choose the order method best suited to their needs. Panera's innovation - and the results they produced - inspired competitors to follow in the sandwich chain's footsteps.

Starbucks, too, has implemented technologies that speed up customer ordering and ensure equipment is utilized effectively. The Seattle-based organization has applied Microsoft Azure's reinforcement learning technology and Microsoft Azure's Sphere.  The purpose of Azure's reinforcement is to aid in the decision making process for their app users who participate in complex and unpredictable environments.  This technology provides individually tailored suggestions to customers based on factors such as the inventory of the nearby locations, previous orders the customer has placed, and time of day. While the reinforcement technology is geared toward consumers, the sphere targets the stores themselves.  The Sphere provides proactive maintenance on equipment by sharing real-time data.  This ensures that Starbucks is running as efficiently as possible by monitoring and informing the relevant parties when maintenance is necessary.  This allows Starbucks to stay ahead, rather than fall behind because of unreliable machines.  Starbucks is constantly finding more ways to satisfy their customers.  Recently, they have also used Azure to track their coffee beans from its initial pickup location all the way through to the customer's coffee cup.  The goal is to share this capability with the customers to increase transparency, provide piece of mind, and foster a sense of involvement.

Like Starbucks, McDonald's also wants to prompt its customers with suggestions. This is what influenced them into purchasing a personalization and decision logic tech company called Dynamic Yield early this year.  McDonald's has also invested in Plexure, which is a mobile app developer.  Many fast food restaurants now also have apps that customers can order from and either have it delivered to them or they can go to the store to pick up.  McDonald's looks to be following suit.  The tech company will work with McDonald's to create suggestions for customers on what to order based on other products in their cart, as well as the ingredients the McDonald's location has in stock.  One area in particular where McDonald's wants to utilize order suggestions is for their Pick Two. This is intended to speed customers through the drive-thru and ultimately increase satisfaction.

The restaurant industry is heavily impacted by the growing number millennial parents and their families. What innovations will this new generation inspire next?

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Nicole O'Connell

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