Taking it online: Fast food retailers adopt chatbots

Article by Natasha Stokes
Multicultural group of friends using cellphones - Students sitting in a row and typing on the smartphones fast-food
Image credit: Shutterstock

On Facebook Messenger, burger enthusiasts can message Burger King to let it know they’d like to order.

They’ll be greeted by the resident chatbot, and shown the menu options – like a counter order, the Burger King bot even asks if they’d like to make it a meal. When the order is confirmed, the buyer chooses their pickup location, pays, and gets told when they can head over and grab their food.

In the boom time of on-demand food delivery apps, saving a few minutes to pick up your fast-food burger can seem a little underwhelming for customers – but fast-food giants with chatbot ambitions are gunning for more than speed and convenience.

Take TacoBell’s chatbot, currently in beta on the business instant messenger, Slack. Customers can order food from the restaurant’s “tacobot” and ask questions about the menu. Responses are designed to mimic phrases consumers use in everyday life – the bot may say “sounds good” instead of “item available”, and in the demo on the site, at least, the bot can reply to non-menu-related comments with the odd wry answer.

“It’s an easy way to reach office workers who may be ordering for a whole team, and who don’t want to spend a lunch break waiting in line to pick up an order – but it also reinforces the brand’s young, fun image,” says Kien Tsoi, Senior Associate in Retail Brokerage at JLL in Los Angeles.

Making it personal

Chatbots create simple conversation based on programmed scripts that can factor in small pieces of new information – for example, someone’s last order or what city they’re in.

“A chatbot interacts – it brings you back to more of a person taking your order,” says Tsoi. “Part of the attraction for brands is that chatbots allow this personalized interaction – something that people are increasingly expecting, especially millennials – without the cost of hiring an army of customer service reps.”

Meal orders made via Facebook Messenger or Twitter chatbots also help brands engage their customers where they’re already spending time.

Linking a meal order with time, location and potentially what was visible on the screen is valuable insight for marketing to the right people at the right time and place– and a handy chatbot can also facilitate an impulse buy after a well-targeted fast food ad scrolls by, Tsoi adds.

Chatbots must be smooth operators

When Domino’s told its Twitter followers that they could now order a pizza simply by tweeting a pizza emoji, it was less-than-positively reviewed for neglecting to clarify that one had to first create a Domino’s profile, then set a favorite pizza – which was the only thing that could be ordered by emoji.

Using an automated platform for ordering can be counterproductive for both sales and brand image if the experience isn’t seamless – especially for the digitally savvy millennials who are the most enthusiastic users of chatbots.

It should also feel easier and more helpful than a phone call or app order, Tsoi adds. For example, Pizza Hut’s chatbot can link Pizza Hut and Facebook profiles to list previous orders. Down the line, that could evolve to making menu suggestions based on past clicks and purchases – in other words, the data-driven equivalent of “Do you want fries with that?”

Outside the US, fast-food giants have yet to introduce ordering by chatbot, but the potential is there as chatbots emerge as a low-cost, efficient way for brands to get one-on-one interactions with their customers – though Tsoi isn’t convinced about the uptake by other types of restaurants.

“Fast food restaurants have much simpler menus, and possible questions and answers are easier to map out,” he says. “Imagine the kind of questions a fine-dining restaurant would have to deal with.”

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