Some of the best technology of today relegates actions that, just a couple years ago, used to take a lot of forethought, planning, or at least a fair amount of attention. Uber (and its transportation ilk) are the best example of how personal technology completely changes behavior patterns. Five years ago, you could not get a car from an app on your phone. Today this is ubiquitous, and expected. (Cue the helpless feeling when a frequent Uber user travels to a city that doesn’t have the technology.)
The emerging on-demand economy has taken off because consumers love the convenience. Tap, click, and you get what you want, when you want it, where you want it — and when it’s time to pay, that happens behind the scenes. The popularity of these experiences has quickly changed our expectations around the service industry. We want easy, fast, pain-free, and very consistent.
Payment technology, across many industries, is one of the fastest-changing areas of technology. The most interesting thing about it, in my opinion, is that it’s both an engineering/product challenge and a social challenge: payments products must be secure and trustworthy to function, but they also need a base of willing consumers to actually use them.
Luckily, the shift to alternate and invisible payment methods is already happening. There’s the on-demand model as described above, and there’s cashless, phone-based payment, like Apple Pay. Everyone from big department stores to fast food to grocery stores now accept wireless pay models. You don’t have to hassle with friends any more about splitting a tab — there’s an app to tell you how much each person owes and one that lets you send money with a text message. I pay my dog walker invisibly.
Mobile payments have been gaining in popularity for a few years, and according to a recent eMarketer report, 2016 is poised to be a huge year for the technology: an estimated 37.5 million people will use proximity-based mobile payments this year — it’s not a fad, it’s a trend. As mobile devices become more secure, able to store more information, and are now in the hands of so many people, it’s not unreasonable to expect that we’d not only be comfortable paying with our phones; we want to pay with our phones. Same goes for stored payment information for trusted companies, from online shopping to any sort of recurring billing process.
What does this mean for restaurants?
These massive payment changes have certainly changed the service industry and, as you’d expect, are now affecting restaurants. For the diner, instead of the process of a meal in disparate parts — reserve, confirm, dine, pay, leave — new technology and trends are changing this process into a seamless experience. Invisible payments carry real benefits for restaurants, too. In the short term, they enable restaurants to deliver better hospitality to their guests; over time, this turns to operational efficiency with shorter turn times and increased guest security.
An example: On OpenTable, users can search for a restaurant by any number of factors — name, date, location, party size, and more. A few more taps or clicks, and the guest reserves a table, receiving instant confirmation. The process is the same whether you reserve your table an hour before a meal or a month before: narrow the details of your restaurant selection, book your spot, receive instant confirmation, and view the details in your OpenTable profile.
Payments are the next logical step here. A new product called House Accounts lets guests pay the bill at a restaurant without worrying about cash or a credit card. The program ties guest payment information directly to the the reservation, so the diner knows the payment process is taken care of. Diners are instructed to notify waitstaff at the beginning of the meal, and the staff is educated to take care of the rest, including delivering an itemized receipt to the guest. (The guest also receives a non-itemized receipt via email.) Think of it like a technological evolution of the sometimes clunky payment process — now everything is built into the restaurant’s steps of service, requiring no back and forth. This is less of a change to service, and more of an evolution.
When the logistics are gone, the focus is the experience. The first successful on-demand companies were built on the principle of invisible payments — no new behavior to learn. Admittedly, this is a hurdle for restaurants: the cadence and structure of the dining experience are ingrained in our social brains, and change is hard. That said, remember the first time you took an Uber? It was weird. Maybe the second time, too. But after a few rides, you got used to the idea. Then you loved the idea.
Consumers are dialed into convenience; they don’t just want it, they expect it. Consumers also like to feel special, and the ease of invisible payments gives a certain “VIP” feeling. On the restaurant’s part, seamless payment technology helps staff focus on the human elements of hospitality, less so on the logistics.
I do believe the future of restaurant dining is payment-free, with technology as the thread that holds the experience together. In this way, always-connected mobile technology is almost freeing: plan on the go, receive instant confirmation, arrange for everything to be taken care of, and enjoy a consistent experience. Technology streamlines logistics, allowing hospitality pros to focus on hospitality, giving restaurant diners the best experience possible.