We all have to eat.

Our constant craving drove Canada’s grocery and restaurant sectors to combined sales of $217 billion last year.

Like every other industry on this planet, food retailing is being disrupted by digital technology that’s transforming how and where we select, obtain, pay for and consume what ultimately ends up in our stomachs.

Disruption, as always, was on the menu at Toronto’s annual DX3 conference on Thursday. A session on food retailing featured Loblaw, McDonald’s Canada and Ritual, a Toronto startup whose customers can pre-order and pre-pay for meals and drinks at participating eateries online or via a mobile app.

Loblaw has launched a Click and Collect service so shoppers can preorder groceries and pick them up later from stores like this one. (Photo: Loblaw)

All three companies occupy different notches in the food retailing food chain, so to speak. But each executive showed up ready to dish on the most important lessons they’ve learned from introducing fresh new digital technology to their customers.

Here are four innovation tips your retail business can steal from these three food-based enterprises.

1) One tech does not fit all

Don’t assume a new technology that works with one store location or retail concept will be a runaway success in another.

“Every different retail environment is unique, so they all pose different challenges,” said Lauren Steinberg, senior director of digital and ecommerce marketing at Loblaw Companies Ltd.

With Loblaw’s Click and Collect, customers submit grocery orders online (which are filled by store staff), then pick them up at the store in their cars later. The service was a hit at most Loblaw locations that have ample free parking. At busy downtown stores where parking is scarce or expensive? Not so much.

That’s why the company is launching its first Click and Collect walk-up location for shoppers who want to preorder items online without bringing their car downtown later.

2) Look past POS

McDonald’s Canada has introduced self-serve ordering and payment kiosks in 900 stores over the past two years. During that time, the company has come to view the value of the kiosks as transformational rather than just transactional.

“When we launched it, we looked at it as a point-of-sale (technology). But what it really is, is a digital experience,” said Lara Skripitsky, head of digital at McDonald’s Canada.

McDonald’s has introduced self-serve ordering and payment kiosks like these ones at 900 restaurants across Canada. (Photo: McDonald’s Canada)

“The kiosk was viewed as a way to get people through (the restaurant) quickly,” she said. “But we realized it’s more about the ability to take your time and customize your order. And it’s assuming a more playful role … than just the functional role of ordering. It’s something the guest wants to enjoy versus just get through functionally.”

Ritual founder Ray Reddy agreed, saying too many retailers fixate on the payment process (i.e., is it mobile, is there a dongle, can you tap it?) instead of improving overall customer experience.

“No one’s excited about paying. The best payment technology is the kind that makes payment disappear,” Reddy said.

He cited Uber’s cloud-based credit approach, where customers never have to reach for their wallets or tap their phones to pay.

3) Get testy

Rather than testing your new technology in best-case scenarios, dare to ask ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’

“Think of ‘what if’ cases because they can really impact the customer experience,” Steinberg suggested.

She then shared her worst-case case in point: while testing Click and Collect, Loblaw assumed people would pick up their online grocery orders at separate, staggered times from each other. In real life, shortly after the official launch, four customers showed up at the exact same time to collect their orders from the exact same store location.

Panelists Lauren Steinberg (Loblaw), Lara Skripitsky (McDonald’s Canada) and Ray Reddy (Ritual) at DX3 in Toronto.

Reddy said Ritual was hit with a similar surprise that hadn’t cropped up during beta testing. When a high volume of Ritual app users arrived en masse to pick up their pre-ordered meals at certain restaurants or coffee shops, ‘regular’ customers started to resent them for being queue jumpers.

To ease the tension – and messy lineups – Ritual started advising its partner eateries to create separate pickup areas designated just for Ritual app users.

“Test and learn and allow yourself time to pivot,” Steinberg advised the DX3 audience.

4) Sell it to your staff first

Make sure your employees are sold on your new technology before they help your customers use it.

“We underestimated the ability of in-store colleagues to change,” Steinberg said diplomatically of the initial reaction to Click and Collect among Loblaw staff. “That was kind of one of the surprises early on.”

It took a bit longer for Ritual to realize the importance of getting staff buy-in around new technology.

When the app was first rolled out, Ritual was able to spend a lot of time making sure restaurant staff were trained how to use it and supportive of the program. As more restaurants signed up, however, Ritual was forced to speed up the training process and spend less time making sure restaurant staff were comfortable with the system.

Now, Ritual has instituted a mandatory one-hour training session for all restaurant employees that includes them trying out the app as customers.

“The level of staff buy-in is one of the most critical factors,” said Reddy. “It’s an absolute necessity. It gives them a lot of empathy when customers are on the other side of the counter.”

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