Wendy's, the giant fast-food chain, will be installing self-ordering kiosks at more than 1,000 — or sixteen percent — of its locations by the end of 2017.
According to this report from the Columbus Dispatch, the kiosks are already in testing at several locations in Ohio. They work. They're ready.
Wendy's isn't the only company doing this. Chains like Red Robin and Uno Pizzeria & Grill are using Ziosk tablets so that customers can order, pay and play games while waiting for their food to arrive. Wawa convenience stores, beloved in my hometown of Philadelphia, takes all of its deli and sandwich orders via self-service kiosks. Airports around the country have restaurants equipped with similar tablets to quickly order a bite before a flight.
And, of course, those are just restaurants. As consumers, we're all familiar with self-service checkouts now at supermarkets, pharmacies, gas stations and ticket counters.
The kiosks are not as expensive as one might think. According to the Columbus Dispatch article, three of Wendy's kiosks can be set up for about $15,000, and the company estimates payback to be within two years. As the popularity of this technology grows, smaller retailers will be able to more easily invest in this technology. So should you.
Of course, the reason that first comes to mind is to save labor costs — which is valid. Some experts, as well as management at companies who are doing what Wendy's is doing, will say that they are not doing this to eliminate jobs but rather to "improve productivity" and "shift duties." That, of course, is baloney. It doesn't take an MBA to do the math: the more customers can do on their own, the less people are required in the store or restaurant to help them. "Last year was tough — 5 percent wage inflation," a Wendy's executive said in the Columbus Dispatch article. He added that the company expects wages to rise 4 percent in 2017. "But the real question is what are we doing about it?" There's your answer.
However, there's a bigger reason: customer service and customer data. We are all impatient. We all desire to get things done faster in our already hectic lives. If you've never experienced the joy of ordering a Wawa hoagie in 45 seconds or skipping through a CVS checkout line in minutes or ordering and paying for your food at an Uno's, you've never experienced some of the simple pleasures of living in the 21st century. Customers want instant gratification. We want our movies to stream in our homes and our Amazon orders to arrive that day, and we want this without having to deal with another human being. More and more retailers will not only invest in technology to meet their customers' demands, but also to get a better idea of their preferences and buying habits.
Wendy's is looking to improve their automation, according to the Columbus Dispatch article. But as the article says, "They are also trying to enhance the customer experience. Younger customers prefer to use a kiosk." Demand for these kiosks is high, according to the company.
Yes, automation eliminates people. And yet it's those very same people who crave automation. It will all be about balancing technology and human service in the years to come. That will be Wendy's challenge. That will be your challenge.
A version of this column originally appeared on Inc.com.