The kiosks are coming for your McDonald’s pals

I try not to use the self-checkout lane in grocery and hardware stores. I’m old school; I think people should be able to make a living — or close to it — and the money they earn should circulate around the local economy, helping other businesses and maybe even leaving enough money for people to throw at the local public radio outlet.

You’ve probably noticed that as people have gotten used to the automation, they’ve provided fewer and fewer humans as alternatives at the checkout. Soon there will be none. And then they’ll come for you.

This was made even more clear to me the other day, when I stopped into the newly renovated McDonald’s in Inver Grove Heights.

“Would you like to use the new automated order system?” said one of the neat old ladies who I’ve grown to love, even though I often had to shout my orders and explain a few things before I could pollute my temple.

“Hell, no!” the voice in my head said as my mouth went into manual Minnesota override without proper authorization, uttering, “Sure!” before I could stop it.

It’s a simple touch screen with a chain system of answering questions that took twice or three times as long as it would have had I been able to walk up to my human friends and said, “Number 1 meal, small drink, going out,” swiped my card and grabbed the food that another human put together.

McDonald’s practically invented efficiency, so it’s a national scandal that we’re just going to stand by and watch what we all know will happen eventually. Were our “conversations” with the new system to take place with our human friends, drawn out with a series of questions, each would be dead by the end of the lunch rush.

This week, McDonald’s said it would convert 1,000 stores per quarter to the new technology. And don’t think you’re not going to pay the price. The experts have calculated that you’ll order more food via the kiosks than you would talking to a human, according to Yahoo Finance, something that would’ve happened if they’d just put apple pies back on the menu board.

“What we’re finding is when people dwell more, they select more,” CEO Steve Easterbrook told CNBC on Monday. “There’s a little bit of an average check boost.”

Not if I don’t go into your store, Steve. An MSN survey said 78 percent of those asked say they wouldn’t go into a store with automated ordering.

Half the stores will have the kiosks by the end of the year. Other countries have already wiped humanity out of the business.

“The U.S. is a little bit behind,” Easterbrook said.

There are plenty of people who will blame this on efforts to increase the minimum wage, but Reason.com says it’s about the extra money you’ll be spending at the fast food joint.

“Minimum wage laws do a lot of bad things, but those new kiosks at McDonald’s are not among them,” it says.

Fingers crossed for you, old ladies in Inver Grove Heights. But automation/retail history isn’t on your side.

  • Rob

    Fast food kiosks are definitely a bug, not a feature.

  • Sam M

    The Reason article is interesting but I don’t see where it is interviewing the people writing the checks for these kiosks or the salesperson hocking it to said check writer. That conversation revolves around saving on labor costs or at the very least managing it better. I’ve been a part of those conversations on both sides and cost control is definitely a large driver because it’s easy to illustrate/sell reducing headcount and difficult to prove/sell sales lift. I wouldn’t put much stock in the public facing spin by the kiosk maker or some corporate executive either.

    I wouldn’t say raising the minimum wage caused it because this technology was being developed and planned for before long before wages really started to go up.

    • The CNBC interview also stressed the consumer behavior angle. So there’s nobody actually saying that human capital is the issue, even though, of course, we can suspect there is.

      • Sam M

        Human behavior may be a part of the pitch but its a hard one to sell to a CTO or CFO without really hard data. Headcount and dollars associated are easy things to illustrate in a presentation.

        • I’m assuming whoever markets these things had some data.

          I’m assumign they were tested somewhere to confirm it before being rolled out.

          • Sam M

            Maybe but that’s a big assumption and it would be limited data anyways which makes it a lot less convincing.

            I worked for company that sold technology in the same space and data like that is hard to come by and generally not given much weight especially in the QSR industry where they “stack pennies” as one franchisee put it to me.

  • Kassie

    I was at a contact center conference in 2008 or so. One of the thing that kept coming up was how McDonalds is using contact centers in South Dakota to ring up drive thrus across the country and it was the wave of the future. Basically, they could get cheap people with native accents in SD and then have cheap labor who didn’t speak English in their stores. Well, that didn’t catch on and this may not either.

    I think of the people who can’t articulate their orders now in a quick manner, what will they do when they don’t have someone urging them on? If they can’t speak their order quickly, it will take forever for them to pick it on a machine. Everyone waiting behind them will be furious.

    • RBHolb

      “I think of the people who can’t articulate their orders now in a quick manner . . .”

      Which is a more polite term for the people who always seem to be ahead of me in the drive-thru.

  • Gary F

    They no longer have Hamburglar, Grimace or Mayor McCheese also.

  • Nato Coles

    I really like that I can buy one piece of fruit or a Pierson’s Salted Nut Roll ™ at the local mini-Target by just scanning it myself and paying quickly. Automated checkouts are great for very simple orders. I don’t like using automatic checkout for anything over a handful of items, though. Half the time, something gets screwed up and the overseer (is that what they’re called?) has to come over and work their overseer magic on the machine. I would hate to order an actual meal from a kiosk! That sounds dystopian for sure.

    That said, when I was younger and broke and travelling, I had *zero* problem with the automated checkout isles that let me ring up anything I wanted as bananas – cheap! (Just don’t get caught – I never did.)

    • One of the phenomenons I actually enjoy is a Facebook group from my hometown. Almost every other day someone posts a picture of its dilapidated downtown, posts one of its heyday, and chastises everyone but themselves for causing it.

      But they caused it.

  • Brian

    We were in a deserted fast-casual restaurant a few weeks ago. Literally one other customer in there when we walked in. We had the option of kiosks or the clerk waiting for something to do. I don’t have as strong opinion against kiosks as you do Bob and may have picked the kiosk if it were busy, but it sure would have felt weird to use them with the clerk standing there looking on.

    But that is just what the group after us did! The clerk politely waited while they ignored her and typed in their order.

  • Ben Chorn

    I like the self checkouts because they’re much faster and usually have no lines.

    For ordering meals I like it because I know it (likely) won’t get messed up. I have seen kiosks already at small fast food joints (like Val’s in St Cloud) and even at gas stations that serve food. It seems to also keep lines moving faster.

    It’s also becoming more common to download apps for food places and place orders ahead so they’re ready when you get there, which is essentially what you get with a kiosk.

    The big fast joints have already started getting rid/consolidating jobs when they began outsourcing drive-thru orders.

    https://www.twincities.com/2009/01/25/fast-food-restaurants-begin-outsourcing-drive-through-order-taking/

  • John

    1) I guarantee McD’s doesn’t do anything that doesn’t improve their profit margins. Be it through reduction in cost or improvement in margins in other ways. This is one of those things. I am sure of it. Those kiosks are crazy expensive, and likely cost a lot to maintain. I don’t think they’ll be willing to get rid of all the counter workers, because if the kiosk (or the network) goes down, the store will have to close. That’s not a risk I bet they’ll take.

    2) I was in China in March. One morning, at the train station in Beijing, it was early enough that not much was open, and my 9 year old was not in the mood for dumplings or anything unfamiliar (the 13 year old got dumplings . . . again). (She did great over all, but sometimes familiarity is your friend.) The touch kiosk was a welcome tool, as there was an English option, and not surprisingly, no one working at the counter spoke English (our Mandarin is non-existent). So, there’s a place for them, but that’s a sliver of the market. Paying through it without a Chinese bank account, however, was impossible, and they make it difficult to use cash.

    • John

      I’ll also note that Tokyo as a whole seemed to be doing just fine, and they had a few places where we could order, receive our food, and leave without interacting with a single human. (We didn’t eat at any of those). Up to and including vending machines with all sorts of things.

      • I would think people visiting Tokyo would want to interact with humans.

        I do think there is a serious consequence of our move away from human interaction . We certainly see it in politics and race relations in which people are demonized and dehumanized and the willing accept it because they don’t know any better, in many case.

        • John

          I don’t think these were geared to foreigners. Most people living in Tokyo enjoy the break from human interaction, I gather, because it’s really, really crowded.

    • // he store will have to clos

      They’ve have to close anyway as the entire production process is based on computers and electricity.

      and even if it weren’t, nobody would be able to make change.

      • John

        “even if it weren’t, nobody would be able to make change”

        good point. . . I had this happen in a sub shop many years ago when I was in school, trying to buy dinner between classes and grading exams one night.

        The clerk’s excuse “I’m a journalism major.” (I wish I were kidding). I wanted to ask him if he ever planned to have a checkbook that needed balancing.

    • Sam M

      The kiosks for the most part are no different than the POS that the human uses…. they have the same failure issues with those and that’s why they have multiple. If the network goes down they have automatic failovers and CC transactions are still processed. The POS can work offline.

      • You should go look at one, use one… come back and report.

        • Sam M

          The main hardware and software are the same. UI is slightly different but not much. Change dispenser is different but cash drawers actually have high failure rates so kiosks may have advantage there and don’t get me started on change dispensers.

          The big advancement years ago that really changed POS hardware was the touchscreen. Having a customer facing kiosk really isn’t that groundbreaking tbh. The big change is designing software that is intuitive enough for general public to use… well actually have a general public pre-trained by our phones and other technology is really the big difference.

          • I’m more interested in the societal and anthropological trends, myself. The extent to which we are isolating ourselves from each other seems to me to carry significant consequences . If we continue to reject human interaction, will we be capable to empathy, for example? It’s evolution.

          • Sam M

            I hear ya. Honest question… have we ever really reversed trends like that though? To date it seems technology has proven hard for us to slow down no matter the consequence.

            I will admit I’m the worst when it comes to self-service…. I’d rather just help myself.

          • Oh, I don’t think it’s reversible at all. I think it’s an obvious progression

  • Jeff

    I get tired of having another new UI to figure out. The human one is much more universal although I don’t like people pretending to be interested in my life. I’d think walking into Culvers with a pleasant (although robotic) person is much better experience than dealing with a machine at McDonalds.

    • Ben Chorn

      Eventually these kiosks will be able to ask you what you want and then use voice recognition to place your order, probably with a “Enjoy your meal!” thrown in there too. Just a matter of time.

      • Jeff

        Then they’ll be like the voice recognition phone systems. Many times I fall into a hole somewhere with these. Maybe ordering and paying for a burger and fries is simpler. But then they can add a joke of the day, an insincere compliment, or a just a “do you want fries with that?”.

      • RBHolb

        That is one of the most frightening things I can imagine.

  • Jerry

    If you are talking about the McDonald’s at 55 and Dodd, that is one of the worst I regularly encounter. But the problem seems to be with management, not front counter.

    • Nope. The one on the SSP line near Fleming Field.

      • Jerry

        Ah, forgot about that one

        • It’s all we got, now that they knocked down the KFC

          • Jerry

            You should head over to west Saint Paul and get your chicken from Pollo Compero. Way better than KFC, although probably out of the way.

          • John

            Raising Cane’s right near there isn’t half bad either.

  • blindeke

    Minimum wage laws also do a lot of good things, most importantly, paying workers more.

    • Gary F

      If they can keep the same amount of hours. And the more productive help will get paid more, as they do today.

    • Guest

      SWEET…..until inflation takes away from everyone. I grew up thinking $1.25 minimum was fine…..because a burger was 15 cents.

      • The problem, of course, is that the cost of the burger now reflects inflation. The minimum wage does not. It has actually been reduced.

  • Barton

    I do enjoy the places at MSP where you sit down, grab their “iPad”-like thingy, order your food/drink and someone brings it to you. But I admit when I am at an airport I am already in a sea of humanity I am trying to avoid: I don’t want to talk to another person.

    I’ve used the kiosks at Mickey-Ds in Europe (not my choice of places to eat btw, but concessions/compromises must be made when traveling with a group): never successfully. I think it is b/c I am that person who always makes changes to the set menu item. No ketchup/mayo, double mustard, extra pickles, toast the bun more, etc. The machines don’t normally understand me the way that the humans do. So, whether it is Target, Lunds/Byerly’s or a fast food place, I like the human.

    • >>The machines don’t normally understand me the way that the humans do. So, whether it is Target, Lunds/Byerly’s or a fast food place, I like the human.<<

      I agree, although I use self-checkout when I only have a few items. More than a few items, it's humans all the way.

      • Barton

        Even with a few items (like single pieces of fruit at the downtown Mpls Target) I seem to mess it up. Granted, I blame that on Target putting scanning labels on fruit that don’t match up what is in their database. Thus if I am not careful/paying attention, their scanners picks up the label on the banana before I can type in a number. And thus I have to wait for someone to come, put their 100 digit (exaggeration, slightly) code into the system, remove my mistake, so I can start again.

        That said, I’ve recently gotten about $6 from the Target kiosks because someone keeps forgetting to take their change/cash, and the attendant just hands it to me when I ask what to do with it….

  • >>The experts have calculated that you’ll order more food via the kiosks<<

    Not I. I don't do "fast food." Sorry.

    • Rob

      I’m with ya. Anything that smells dead after less than five minutes is way too scary to consume.

  • Jeff

    “Number 1 meal, small drink, going out,”. Is this Northeastern for “to go”? Haven’t heard that before.

    • boB from WA

      I always tell the clerk – “Put wheels on it”

  • Karl Crabkiller

    I remember eating at the automat on 7th in Minneapolis in the 60’s. Maybe not the same as a ordering kiosk – at the automat you could look at the food before you put money in the slot. Pretty much zero human interaction.

    • Jerry

      The Forum?

  • Postal Customer

    There was some article on here a few days ago about the horse and buggy. Hmm.

  • Guest

    Every owner looks at every job and figure the cost (wages, fringes, taxes) compared to the value the job brings.

    To say staffing costs do not enter into french-fryer robots to kiosks is to not understand Econ 101……or pure public relations.

    • Who said they do not enter into the kiosks at all?

  • Staciaann

    My biggest concern here is that you imply there are no more apple pies at McD’s. What?? I went to Scotland in the late 90s and they still had the ridiculously deep fried versions that are 200% more delicious than the baked version and it was like heaven in a little cardboard sleeve. Sigh.