The Death of the Human Cashier: Panera’s New POS System

The other day, I wandered into Panera Bread in the early morning before work. I think birds were chirping and the sun was shining, but it’s hard to remember because I was in some sort of post-apocalyptic zombie state and may have been drooling on myself.

I had a few things on my mind. Coffee, first and foremost. Second? My choice of griddle-seared breakfast options that all promised to leave me that delectable, favorite part of morning consumption (if one has to have a savory sandwich): the gooey cheese clumps that get stuck to the wrapper. It doesn’t take much, I guess.

I have been frequenting this particular Panera for awhile now. It’s literally two minutes away from the office and is filled with loaves of fluffy carbs. Sometimes I order salads and fruit and things, but let’s be real. I’m here for the bread.

I have started to notice a few changes to this store over the past few weeks. Typically, you enter the fast casual restaurant and have your option of ordering via human cashier at two places: the bakery, where you are inhumanely surrounded by things like chocolate croissants and cinnamon bagels, or the café, which is really just a row of cash registers slightly to the left of the pastries. They do put cookies in front of these cash registers, so the sweets never really leave you. If you order to eat in, you’re given a pager and can go find the table of your choice. If you order to-go, you’re prompted to stand by the food line until someone calls out your name.

In the past few visits, I noticed there was a large wall of shelving next to the food line. This area was labeled “Rapid Pick-Up,” but I hadn’t really delved too much more into it. This day, however, I noticed something even more exciting (at least for us payments people).

Immediately to the right, when you walk in the front door, was a row of iPad kiosks. This way, customers could order on their own without getting in the traditional cashier lines. Each kiosk was stocked with pagers and cups so that customers didn’t need to go looking for them.

Of course, I jumped right into line with one of these bad boys. Morning is not the time for human interaction. Bring on the machine. The app whisked you along, prompting you to swipe your MyPanera card or sign up on the spot (cards were also located at the kiosk), select your items, pay, and be on your way. As luck would have it, I couldn’t get my iPad to accept either of my credit cards, so I was forced to go interact with a human being. Sigh.

However, the concept was exciting, especially since Panera during lunchtime can raise the hair on the back of your neck. Even more, as I was waiting for my to-go order, this time a board lit up on the “Rapid Pick-Up” shelf showing that the order for “Elizabeth” was being made. Nice. Customers like to know what’s going on.

I took the time to read more about “Rapid Pick-Up,” which was an online ordering system that enabled customers to skip the lines altogether and find their prepared order on the shelf. I picked up my Power Sandwich, filled my coffee, and headed over to work.

Intrigued by the options, I later went online to scout out the offerings. Panera has several online ordering options that appear once you click the link on their webpage. “Rapid Pick-Up” is, indeed, a quick system which prepares the food for pick-up from the aforementioned shelf. “Delivery” was another option, which distinguished itself from catering in the copy and seemed exciting until I found out that they did not offer delivery at my work address. Sadness consumed me.

There were two additional options here: “Order From My Table” and “Express Order.” The “Order From My Table” option allows you to pick the bakery-café where you are located and enter your table number. You can skip the whole standing in line thing altogether. Nice! And perfect for college students wading through term papers and textbooks who have some awareness they need to consume food, but are pretty sure they’ll forget since they have to finish highlighting their copy of Being and Time. “Express Order” is specifically for MyPanera card members and operates like an eWallet, storing payment information and past orders. It should ideally breeze you right through checkout.

Now, Panera isn’t the first restaurant to unveil new ordering systems. Applebee’s made waves late last year when the installation of 100,000 tablets at their tables was announced. And Lucky Robot, in Austin, features iPad ordering on their tables. But I picked Panera because I haven’t ever seen such a wide range of ordering options. They are pushing their alternatives hard, too, which makes me wonder: Is this the death of the human cashier?

The restaurant industry has certainly seen its share of changes. What was once a land of mostly fine dining and full service has quickly morphed into a fast-food, fast casual, to-go order atmosphere. While many fine dining establishments and culture still remain, the influence of the rise in fast-food has definitely impacted the way we eat today. No doubt, it seems, in the way we order also.

Call me misanthropic or socially awkward (I’ve certainly been both), but sometimes I really don’t want to engage with a person to take my order. Somehow the drive-thru box manages to get me jumbled: I usually am greeted by someone (or some recording) that wants me to try some type of Mega Onion Cheddar Monster, then I’m passed to a less-than-enthusiastic worker that misinterprets my order, which I have to repeat three times loudly, to the chagrin of my dignity and the peace of those behind me.

Then there’s the sweet relief of online pizza ordering, which came too late after years of paying my little brother to call in and deal with the people on the phone. Nothing terrifies me more than the phone. I already don’t miss that interaction at all. And I’ll admit, I’m prone to order beef chow fun from whoever lets me do it online.

And at the restaurant? Waiting, wondering, wishing for food and refills isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I sometimes feel like I’m putting someone out, so I try not to ask for anything more than the bare minimum. Not always a spectacular experience, then, as my throat wrestles with overcooked chicken.

So I’m on board for robot ordering. Let me press a few buttons. And especially if I’m feeling really picky and want to modify my order, allow me to irritate no teenage workers today, please. But does my experience reflect the rest of America’s? And then there’s the natural progression of human error to technical error. What about the bugs? Will people be ready to explode after iPads stop reading their cards or malfunction by accidentally ordering 40 plates of calamari? Are there enough squids for that? What about the squid families and squid orphans left behind?

My guess is the hospitality industry won’t do away with full service completely. After all, there’s something incredibly special about leisurely enjoying a delightful meal, served to you by a particularly awesome waiter or waitress. The full experience is something absolutely wonderful. However, in my experience, it’s hit-or-miss at a lot of restaurants. But fast-food and fast-casual? I think there’s a place there for the interactive POS.

What do you think?

Photo credit: Jakub T. Janklewicz




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