Millennials coming to expect the interaction that digital menu boards bring
The final regulatory guidelines for posting nutritional content have yet to be issued by the FDA — part of Obamacare’s initial 2010 law and 2012 Supreme Court decision upholding the law. Yet many restaurants continue to be proactive, at least in part, by deploying more and more digital menu boards. Digital menu boards’ benefit list has long included the flexibility to better include (i.e. add, change and fit) calorie information, a mandate under the law.
They were once considered a sort of luxury, thrusting major brands with capital muscle into modernity and appealing to an increasingly visual consumer. Now, the price has come down and consumers are starting to expect dynamic content from menu boards, according to some experts.
“Millennials, especially, expect the interaction that digital brings. They’ll turn away from signage if they can’t get the information they need,” said Jeffrey Pinc, director of Foodservice at Panasonic. He said indoor digital menu boards are reaching critical mass and that the “drive-thru is next.”
Rod Clouser, regional sales manager at The Howard Company, agrees with that sequence, although he predicts indoor digital signage to be standard in three to five years, and drive-thru digital signage to follow in five to 10 years.
“Capital used to be a much bigger issue. One of our pieces used to be about a $70,000 investment, and now it’s about $20,000. The economy is what it is; we need to move forward on this. Customers want us to,” Clouser said, adding that those who are afraid to pull the trigger because of cost can expect a “quick ROI” behind a 4- to 5-percent sales increase.
Simpler than ever
Also, as the cost continues to come down, the systems are getting simpler: Michael O’Halloran from Samsung, said his company just released an iteration that integrates the media player.
“In the past, you’d have to deploy a few different components — the cabling, the media player, etc. This [integration] has not only brought the cost down, but it’s made it easier for restaurant operators who know food and service, but not necessarily technology,” O’Halloran said.
Five years ago, without this streamlined system, panel costs were double what they are now. Removing the media player alone eliminates some of that cost, which has led to an increase in interest, he said, adding that simplification efforts will continue to be a priority.
Menu labeling tip of the benefits iceberg
Aside from the expectation that they will make Obamacare compliance easier, these industry insiders also highlight a number of other benefits from going digital. Clouser said it gives operators absolute control of their menu and marketing: “You can sit on a beach and change the menu.”
“If you have too much inventory, you can push a message out to get rid of it. We’re in a soccer stadium and at halftime they do an inventory, and if they see that the burgers maybe aren’t selling as much as the hot dogs, you can push out a message and offer half-off burgers during the second half,” O’Halloran added.
There are also cross-promotional opportunities; for example, getting a partner such as Coca-Cola to pay for marketing time on the board. Many chains, O’Halloran said, are offering multiple messages at a time as an upselling technique.
“They can promote their normal menu and their summer shakes or seasonal blends at the same time, for example, and they’re seeing a direct uptick when they do it,” he said.
Even the smaller players and snack-centric brands, such as Auntie Anne’s and Carvel, are starting to go digital as part of their remodeling efforts. Doug Martin, Auntie Anne’s SVP of Development, said although the digital menu boards aren’t mandated, such changes are becoming necessary in today’s competitive environment.
“I think long term, they will be a key element,” he said. “To stay relevant, we have to invest in pieces that are meant to last.”
The benefits aren’t just for operators, either. O’Halloran said consumers prefer digital because it grabs their attention better.
“Millennials are digitally enabled and expect it, and it’s been around long enough that it’s no longer intimidating older generations. In the business of selling food, food imagery looks best in digital,” he said.
Still some road ahead
Even if the pros outweigh the cons as these experts believe, there is still a way to go for digital. Pinc said many operators remain in the educational phase and crave more ROI data because of the upfront costs.
At the recent National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, he said many operators were showcasing such curiosity.
“Operators know they need a digital presence, but they’re not sure how. They come to us a lot for consultancy and best practices. There are still a lot of people who don’t have a lot of experience yet,” Pinc said.
His suggestions for best practices when it comes to a digital signage investment include:
- Have an active video; something that really shows your food and that is strategically placed.
- Invest in assets for digital, like video and food photography. “That first impression is so important,” he said.
- Pick a panel that’s not consumer grade. “If you don’t, you’ll just have to reinvest more and you’ll end up increasing your cost,” he said.
- If you’re predominantly franchised, pick a software partner that has the flexibility to work with those franchisees, “an enterprise solution with local controls,” he said.
Alicia Kelso Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.