The future came for my local Taco Bell. It wasn’t ready.

Dec 6, 2018 · 10 min read

I love Taco Bell. It is the only fast food (outside of McDonald’s in India….oh don’t tease me about the Maharaja Mac and Spicy Paneer Wrap) that I can wholeheartedly consume as a vegetarian. Sub in beans for beef for literally anything (Cheesy Gordita Crunch remains the go-to), and you’ve got an exquisite meal in minutes.

He’s cute in a creepy kind of way

Taco Bell is renowned for its innovation in both advertising and its menu. The Doritos Locos Tacos (DLTs to us ride-or-dies) was the most successful fast food launch in history (until this year’s nacho fries), and I still can’t shake the rabid eagerness with which that chihuahua first ignited my passion for Mexican pizzas. It’s not a stretch to say that — aside from Domino’s — Taco Bell is the most innovative brand in fast food.

Unsurprisingly, this track record of innovation has coincided with phenomenal growth for the faux-Mexican brand. Over the past 3.5 years, publicly-traded quick service restaurants have averaged ~2% same-store-sales growth vs. Taco Bell’s ~3.5%; more broadly, Taco Bell has outperformed the overall industry in 12 of the last 15 quarters.

Taco Bell has been in beast mode for the past few years.

It’s a matter of record that it’s an industry-leader, and I find myself habitually excited by its constant experimentation. Which is why I was so flummoxed by the implementation of ordering kiosks at my local Taco Bell.

It started as a typical Friday night.

We got home late from work, and the entire family was craving quick cheesy bean and rice deliciousness. The only decision needed at that time was figuring out who’s car to take. We duly jumped in the parents’ whip, strapped in the kids, and embarked on our journey.

Now the Taco Bell we call home is usually pretty busy. It sits at a major intersection in Queens, and there’s high traffic in-store and in the drive through most weeknights. But that’s why we love it — we know that the food here will be consistently hot and fresh (ok, as fresh as you’d expect).

That’s all the more reason though why it needed to get its first true implementation of brick-and-mortar tech spot-on. The customer experience needs to be carefully managed, especially when it’s crowded. When new variables are introduced, it’s far too easy for crowdedness to lead to confusion. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what happened when I tried to embrace those beacons of burrito deliciousness.

It hit me like a bolt of lightning when I walked in the door, like Harry’s first foray through Diagon Alley. I was amazed that this piece of the future — something I’d only read about in various trade publications — had made it’s way to my corner of the world. It called to me like the Sirens of old Greek mythology, whispering promises of customized crunchwrap delight swimming in an ocean of nacho cheese.

But little did I know that I would wading into a pool of peril.

Issue #1: “Asshole move bro”, aka how tech affects foot traffic

Controlling the user experience in the digital world is infinitely easier — the bounds of the medium are defined by our screen-size, and so there’s a finite space that developers and designers need to consider. Of course there are infinite permutations of how things are presented, but the constant feedback from users and stats on engagement fuel a consistent cycle of iteration. When you release something in the wild digitally, you can rapidly measure its impact in various small-scale ways before fine-tuning releasing it more broadly.

Brick-and-mortar technology though is a devilishly tricky thing to get right. There are just so many variables to take into account, especially in a setting as operationally intense as a fast food restaurant. First — and perhaps most critically — is understanding the impact on customer foot traffic.

You can see in the picture above how close the kiosks are to the area where customers wait in line to order from the POS / cashier. This caused immediate tension, as customers waiting in the traditional POS-ordering line jumped in to use kiosks as they freed up, cutting off customers waiting off to the side. This wasn’t done maliciously, but rather because the store failed to put into place a clear demarcation between the two ordering processes.

Still, this prompted various accusations of folks committing “asshole moves”, pretty much souring the customer experience before the order’s even been placed. Moreover, the confusion minimized the store’s overall efficiency; instead of lining up normally for their preferred ordering method, customers had to shift positions from one line to another, thereby further stretching out their overall time spent ordering and waiting for food (a cardinal sin in an industry hell-bent on maximizing “throughput” / leverage of the very large fixed real estate and labor costs).

you can see the clear separation between the POS line and the kiosk “fast lane” at Panera

In its most successful form, implementing technology should enhance both customer experience and efficiency. Brands like Panera root their success here by clearly diverting customers between both modes of ordering, rather than simply introducing tablets and hoping for engagement.

Issue #2: the presentation needs to be at a third-grade level

When I did get my chance at the kiosk, I was amazed at the amount of choice on the Taco Bell menu. If you haven’t guessed by now, I consider myself well-versed in ways of the Gordita. But to truly have the power of the entire menu at my fingertips was a jarring experience, and I quickly realized that to “do this right” and explore the outer fringes of Mexi-melt deliciousness would command an amount of time that I could ill afford at that moment.

the “limited time only” section on the kiosk menu

Furthermore, the vastness of the menu left me unsure exactly of how to find what I wanted. I typically have my order down cold, and I imagine it’s only a 30 second process to relay it to the cashier and pay.

On the kiosk though, I found it challenging to find the exact category for my go-to dish. Given I’d just undergone Burritogate via the whole line cutting fiasco, I could ill afford to take the time to sufficiently digest menu. Instead, I just abandoned the process and vowed to try my hand another day.

Simply put, the actual interface was just far too confusing at first blush, especially without clear guidelines on how to order. Instead of easing customers into a pleasant digital ordering experience, they expected newbies and afficionados alike to have pre-existing knowledge on their classification system for the Crunchwrap Supreme or Cheesy Gordita Crunch.

This yet again underscores the broader point I made in the previous section: the technology as-is doesn’t achieve the primary goals of enhancing the user experience or maximizing through-put / efficiency. It’s too complicated at face value, and doesn’t match the effectiveness and simplicity of traditional POS / cashier ordering.

Issue #3: having people in place to troubleshoot issues

So my first kiosk experience was a bust. Still, I managed to squeeze back into line and place my order with consummate ease. I wish I could say the same though for my fellow pinto pilgrims.

As you can see from the process I’ve mapped out below, the gentleman in white that was ordering at the kiosk when I first entered the store was still at it after I had completed my family-sized order with the cashier. I wish I could say that he bravely traversed those Chalupa-shaped pitfalls, but any sort of accomplishment from completing the ordering process crumbled once the machine failed to print his receipt.

Holding a Taco Bell receipt is akin to holding a Willy Wonka golden ticket of your own making. Your destiny is laid out right in front of you there on that small sliver of paper, as images of Doritos Locos Tacos dance through your brain. It’s like getting into the college of your choice, then spending senior year of high school treasuring that acceptance letter, realizing that moments between now and then is just one long interval in which you can dream up how wonderful your life will be.

What do you do when you’ve worked so hard, but you’re denied that subsequent emotional release?

The natural thing to do is to ask for help, but this presented a two-fold problem. First, the Taco Bell member that answered the call had no idea how to solve the issue, simply repeating over and over “the receipt’s not printing…” It was obvious that she wasn’t equipped for the job at hand, or indeed if she could solve any troubles at all relating to the kiosk (through no fault of her own, but rather due to a failure on Corporate’s part to adequately prep their team to handle such issues).

Second, the person designated to help customers with the kiosk was already working behind the counter in food prep. Honestly, this part shocked me, simply because the restaurant was already packed with customers across in-store and drive-through. As I mentioned earlier, labor is a fixed resource in this environment, and fast food establishments pride themselves on leveraging it to the fullest extent. And yet instead of fulfilling orders and ensuring maximum efficiency, a precious part of that equation got dragged out of position to handle an issue they haven’t been fully trained to deal with.

The issue was finally resolved when the Quesarito artisan finally put a hand-written “out of order” sign on the kiosk, thereby debilitating this Taco Bell’s experiment with technology for the remainder of the night.

the three phases of kiosk failure

I go into such detail to illustrate a simple point: the opportunity cost of not thinking through your retail tech strategy is extremely high. There are of course growing pains, and I fully expect the Bell to nail down a winning formula here, but the road to implementing self- or kiosk ordering will be a challenging one.

On the flip side…convenience, customization, up-sells, and data

My second visit a few weeks later though revealed why greater in-store tech adoption can (must?) happen. Going at an off-peak time to satisfy my fried caramel empanada fix was an incredibly leisurely experience. I actually had the opportunity to go deep through the menu, finding new items and sauces that I previously didn’t know existed. Beyond this, I built an incredibly unique order, and could experiment with new twists on old favorites.

Most importantly, the tech reinforced the customer experience, making a routine Taco Bell trip into an incredibly enjoyable journey down the Spicy Ranch rabbit hole (not to mention the size of my order was almost 2x what it normally is).

Finally — and most relevant for what we’re tackling at Bikky — they prompted me for my email address or phone number so I could receive a copy of my receipt. This slight prompt represents the biggest opportunity for brick-and-mortar brands long-term, as it represents a way to finally tie personal customer data to an in-store experience.

For much retail’s history, retail meaningful customer data has been non-existent; brands were relegated to only understanding sales data and macro-level trends, never able to unlock the 1-to-1 personalization that can deepen engagement, order frequency, and customer lifetime value (i.e. what Sweetgreen has done so well over the past decade).

It’s a necessary bridge to unlock a virtuous cycle of personalization and convenience as well (i.e. maximizing throughput / efficiency that all fast food brands crave). I can imagine the day when I’m prompted for my email or phone number at the start of my order, so that instead of being met with that aforementioned confusing array of menu items, I’m presented with my previous order history or personalized recommendations based on my tastes and preferences. In short, brands can finally start to “Amazon” the in-store experience, coupling both personalization and quick, minimal-tap ordering.

my older baby, his uncle, and grandma on another trek for Chalupas

The future is almost here.

Taco Bell is not alone in its quest to improve the in-store experience via technology. We’re just witnessing the beginning of how brands will attempt to unite greater convenience, efficiency, and data collection.

I am not sure how the various strategies will evolve over time, but I can say that a typical restaurant will look drastically different five years from now. New, high-growth forces like delivery and digital payments are also reshaping the physical retail landscape.

Indeed, the day is fast approaching when ordering Taco Bell is as simple as a few finger taps away. We’ve been chosen to witness the rebirth of how we buy and imbibe bean burrito deliciousness. And I am all in.

Abhinav Kapur

Written by

CEO @BikkyHQ | recovering financial analyst | two most important jobs are husband to @deeptisharma1 and dad to a rambunctious toddler

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