Keep the human contact

Starbucks: Curbside is coming your way

Regular users of the bathing ponds on Hampstead Heath have been getting hot under the collar over the recent introduction of an online booking and payment system brought in by the City of London Corporation to safely manage swimmers during covid-19.

Previously, the denizens of this smart north London enclave could pitch up whenever they fancied and pay into the honesty box if they felt that way inclined. However, the new system has brought about order – as well as enforced payment for hourly use of the pool.

This has gone down badly with many regular swimmers – probably the ones who never paid – but it’s clear to see how the most basic of technology (in this case a website with payment capability) has made the ponds’ operation much more efficient and has driven significantly higher revenues. There’s no way this system will be reversed post-pandemic, despite the ongoing efforts of the Save Our Ponds campaign.

A similar scenario is being played out throughout the leisure and hospitality industry, with covid-19 prompting the introduction of more technology-based solutions to remove points of contact – also known as friction – between customers and organisations.

The rise of apps for ordering and paying for goods – in venues and from home – was already in the ascendency along with massively increased levels of home-delivered meals. With covid-19, however, the move towards a world of contactless hospitality has dramatically accelerated.

On entering my local Wetherspoon for breakfast, I was bombarded by signs suggesting I use the company’s app to make my order. There was no need to speak to anyone, although I was informed the option to verbally place an order remained – which I took. It was a similar scenario at another local pub, whose table service-only policy meant its lengthy beer list wasn’t visible. It was suggested I download the Untappd app, which holds the pub’s live beer list. I simply asked the barman for a pint of his recommended pale ale instead.

Many other operators are rejigging their models to incorporate technology-based solutions to limit personal interaction. Costa Coffee has refitted its Argyll Street unit in Oxford Circus to include a grab-and-go hatch that takes up half the store’s frontage. It is designed for takeaway and click and collect orders made via the company’s app.

Starbucks is also swiftly introducing on-the-go options such as drive-thru lanes, kerb-side pick-up and walk-up windows at many of its outlets and making them available as options on its app. The idea was to gradually bring in these elements during the next three to five years but covid-19 has meant it will now be undertaken within 18 months. Itsu is also making a major move to create a ‘store of the future’ that comprises self-checkout kiosks and no fridges out front.

Such has been the success of contactless-focused formats in the US during the past few months, questions are being asked about whether it’s worth reopening the dining rooms at all. David Gibbs, chief executive of Yum Brands, which operates Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, recently said some chains and franchisees were seriously considering shuttering their dine-in option, adding that reopening dining rooms wasn’t “critical to our success”.

Such thoughts will no doubt be on the minds of hospitality leaders in the UK, who have found their new, technology-driven, largely contactless add-on operations financially healthier than their established dine-in models. While in some cases this might prove to be the long-term solution to their pandemic-prompted problems, I hope it won’t be part of a wholesale removal of the essential element of the hospitality industry – human contact and the personal service it engenders.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.