Today’s consumers could order their breakfast from Starbucks via their smart phone, use a kiosk before enjoying table service over a business lunch at Panera Bread and pay for their family’s dinner at Chili’s without ever having to wait for a check.
But you already knew that.
Here’s what you may not have known: Panasonic Corp., whose North American headquarters are in Newark, is one of the top companies helping fast casual and national chain restaurants change their business model.
Panasonic, which calls itself a leading provider of scalable and connected technology solutions in the food services, hospitality and retail spaces, feels it’s in position to take advantage of a growing need by brands to find new ways to engage with their consumers.
“When we talk with chief executive officers and chief information officers within the food and beverage industries, many of them are faced with a lot of the same challenges,” Jeff Pinc, director of food services for Panasonic System Communications Company of North America, said. “They need to be able to take orders from customers in any way that they want to give them; they need to be able to accept any form of payment; and they need to reduce labor costs.”
Panasonic Corp. — which reported over $70 billion in net sales in March — recently hosted NJBIZ at its Harrison Technology Center.
“Our Harrison Technology Center features coming next-generation solutions to show customers and partners how solutions can fit their vision and business needs,” Pinc said.
Now that nearly 85 percent of Panasonic’s operations today are business-to-business, the company has welcomed over 400 customers and prospects to its 50,000-square-foot development and testing facility in the three years since its inception.
The company continues to invest nearly $4.3 billion annually in research and development — and it is betting high on food and retail technology in particular, Pinc said.
“It doesn’t matter whether the client is a restaurant, an airport, an arena, a casino or a cruise ship,” Pinc said. “There are a lot of similarities in the way that they are all approaching food and beverage.”
The ultimate goal, according to Pinc, is to create a seamless, interconnected consumer journey.
“A lot of brands are trying to expand their revenues outside the four walls of their establishments in any way possible,” he said.
Consumer engagement all starts with point-of-sale.
“What brands have discovered is that, if they are on all of these disparate systems and they want to try to roll anything out, they can’t until they at least get on the same foundation throughout the enterprise,” Pinc said.
Panasonic has been heavily invested in point-of-sale, or POS, for over 35 years, having deployed over a million POS workstations worldwide, Pinc said.
“Initially, we saw investment there and we will continue to see investment there,” he said. “We have a lot of clients that use our technology — but, today, that is really the means to an end.
“All of these brands want to be on a central, single platform point-of-sale system to be able to do the ‘cool stuff’ that they want to do from a consumer engagement standpoint.”
That, at its most basic idea, might include sending their consumers mobile coupons and offerings or enrolling them in frequent dining rewards programs, he said.
POS software and hardware solutions and services for four terminals can run anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000, depending on their configuration and accessories, Pinc said.
But Pinc said the opportunity to then easily expand into newer technologies is well worth it for any business.
“The ones who were progressive enough to have already been on a single platform throughout are already enabling these new solutions,” Pinc said. “And I think the biggest thing that they are doing it for — and where they are finding the most return on investment — is to enable what they want to do on their mobile app from a payment and consumer engagement perspective,” he said.
Today, it is imperative that customers be able to order and complete their transaction from their phones, he said.
“If most chief information officers had their way, that is what they’d like the entire environment to be,” Pinc said. “Bring your own device means minimal investment. But I don’t think society is ready for that. There are other stepping stones to get there.”
Mobile applications and the subsequent creation of speed lines have been around for quite some time.
But, Pinc said, what brands have found is that not everyone is using them to place and pay for their orders.
“It went from web to mobile to kiosks to mobility,” Pinc said. “We have had to enable other ways for customers to place orders.”
Panasonic therefore manufactures and works with other manufacturers to create fully customizable and interactive kiosks for both indoor and outdoor use.
“We can create anything from an interactive tabletop to a large, weather- and vandal-proof kiosk rated for the elements,” Pinc said.
Panasonic’s Enterprise Kiosks Tool software also enables brands to help manage remotely each individual kiosk, Pinc said.
“We designed this to recognize that most brands today are predominantly franchise-based, so we have to enable franchisees to go into the system and make changes to their kiosks while still maintaining brand standards by only giving them the selection of graphics and digital assets that the brand approves and puts on the management tool,” he said.
This gives brands the ability to dynamically change pricing, menu items, photo and video content and more without having to facilitate huge companywide efforts.
Rugged mobility solutions — one of the top priorities for Panasonic clients today, Pinc said — also provide multiuse technology for restaurants.
“A lot of brands have a mobile strategy with a fixed POS strategy, but what they are looking for is a hybrid approach,” Pinc said. “I may use our POS workstation as a fixed POS system in a rush. But during off-peak times, a manager can simply grab the mobile device to use for inventory or an employee can use it for e-training.”
Each mobile tablet therefore requires Panasonic’s longest-lasting, fastest-charging, hot swappable cell batteries — and a lot of durability.
“Often times, we have had the military and first responders use our mobility products, but we are finding that the restaurant space is actually a little harsher on them than those types of customers,” Pinc said.
Panasonic has found that mobility has been one of the top factors in engaging consumers how they want to be engaged and has not taken away any jobs from the restaurant industry.
“We have found use for our (mobile solutions) in outdoor line busting, for example, to keep cars from driving off when there is a line at the drive-thru,” Pinc said. “It gives the perception of providing faster speed by taking orders right away and enabling car-side payments.”
And while Panasonic has focused for many years on quick service restaurants, the company is also working with many other table service restaurants, stadiums and casinos to provide mobile solutions for tableside ordering and payment abilities.
“Faster table turns and upselling opportunities lead to both tip and check increases,” Pinc said.
In addition to consumer engagement, technology solutions have also proven to be extremely valuable for brand development initiatives.
That factor has required Panasonic to create strategic partnerships.
“We are doing lots of investments and acquisitions in food and retail spaces,” Pinc said.
One such acquisition last year allowed Panasonic to tap into the 7,000 users of Clearview, an inventory and labor management software developed by Canada-based Quick Service Software, and integrate it into its POS systems.
Not only can Clearview assist Panasonic’s clients with labor scheduling, inventory and corporate reporting, but it can also act as a central repository for any information Panasonic now collects.
“Connected kitchens and big data are near future,” Pinc said.
For example, Panasonic is working with clients to figure out how to best connect appliances such as deep fryers and refrigerators to help alert staff when there is an issue or maintenance is required.
“We are also looking at manufacturing robotics and systems that gain efficiency and improve processes,” Pinc said. “We are finding that a lot of restaurants are looking at their kitchens that way.”
For example, a major quick service restaurant brand recently brought seven industrial engineers to meet with Panasonic.
“This is really important to them,” Pinc said. “They are employing industrial engineers to look at repeatable processes, such as flipping a burger, that they can maybe replace with robotics.”
Brands are also looking outside their kitchens and into their customer service areas, Pinc said.
“For example, we launched Virtual Site Manager — an event-based software solutions that utilizes 360-degree cameras to link recorded situations (of loss) to POS transactions — about two years ago,” Pinc said.
And while those cameras can also monitor traffic volume, verify inventory or remotely manage the store, Panasonic wanted to be able to help clients further expand their capabilities to provide effective marketing solutions.
The right combination of Panasonic 360-degree cameras, accessories and software can now use facial recognition techniques to recognize frequent shoppers, provide age and gender demographics for new customers and capture and isolate conversations for playback.
“We use this for analytical purposes by listening for keywords during an upselling campaign,” Pinc said. “Basically, this is an insights tool much like a digital secret shopper.”
Panasonic’s Service Flow software solutions can also enable the 360-degree cameras to help provide better customer service.
“Any brand that has lines pays people to come in and use a stopwatch to record how long customers waited or spent in one area,” Pinc said. “Now, when a consumer walks into view, we can give them a number and start counting. When they move into a critical service area, such as in front of a cashier, we can give them a second timer.”
Panasonic, a core hardware manufacturer, has been able to provide such solutions by being open to working with software partners.
“We have a really large portfolio of software partners that we approach the market with,” Pinc said.
Versions of the Panasonic POS systems, ruggedized tablets, enterprise kiosks, demographics and service time management analytic solutions have already been deployed in the market.
“But what we are finding is that brands are not just doing this or that — they are doing it all,” Pinc said. “They are hedging their bets to try to engage any customer any way that they want to be engaged.
“We can provide a connected solution throughout the establishment, and that is part of all of the brands’ initiatives — to find a single source manufacturer and tech innovator that can provide all of this to them.”
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On Twitter: @megfry3