On a recent visit to a remodeled McDonald’s restaurant in Orange, I was greeted by the latest in burger-ordering technology.
A large self-service display that allowed me, with touchscreen technology, to have it my way without human interaction.
Automation continues to touch many parts of our daily lives — both as consumers and worker bees. Numerous questions swirl about what this latest wave of technology intrusion into the shopping arena and workplace will eventually mean.
To me, a simple point of contention: Does it work?
The McDonald’s system I was trying — human order takers were also available — seemed rather well thought out. The menu choices were easily accessible and one’s ability to craft customized food was greatly enhanced.
Unfortunately, there’s a learning curve for all involved, too. I had to fumble my way through the ordering protocol … making a few goofs along the way. And I noticed that my self-directed order was served somewhat after orders taken at the traditional counter were made. But I’m not sure if the number of customizations I opted for threw a wrinkle into McDonald’s often well-oiled production line.
Of course, monetary thoughts came to my mind as I was going through this process — how much money is really saved by this technology?
Will this upgrade improve McDonald’s shaky slice of the fast-food business?
How much does this change profitability vs. double drive-through lanes at the refurbished McDonald’s?
When the gee-whiz factor of touchscreen orders wears off, how many folks will use these kiosks when a human order taker is just steps away?
And how long will it be until these kiosks get ripped out when you simply make an order on your cell phone, as more than a few restaurant chains are already offering?
Political undertones enter my mind, too.
Numerous critics of government-imposed minimum wages, and the current movement to move those wages higher, have warned that extra employment costs will serve as added motivation for restaurant operators to add automation to cut labor expenditures. But in this era of a tight labor market, numerous employers are being forced to up wages regardless of what the government tells them they must do.
I did note at the same restaurant with the fancy ordering alternative that a “help wanted” sign highlighted the fact that starting wages were $11 an hour — a bit above California’s minimum.
And the minimum wage debate has seen some wrinkles in recent weeks.
One study of the Seattle employment market after that city increased its minimum wage suggests that jobs were lost due to the higher salaries. That conflicts with other evidence that the minimum wage, at worst, limits job growth in low-paying occupations.
In Missouri, state lawmakers enacted new labor rules that will force the city of St. Louis to roll back it’s $10-an-hour minimum wage to the state $7.70 level. That’s one of the harshest anti-minimum-wage efforts to date.
Automating the ordering process at eateries is nothing new.
Two decades ago, the Sheetz convenience-store chain back east rolled out touchscreen ordering for custom sandwiches made at its deli counters. Who knew the Midwest could be so cutting-edge?
And more recently Starbucks has had its share of success — with some headaches — from its cellphone-driven ordering system. One challenge the coffee shop giant ran into — something all restaurant operators thinking about automation should ponder — is automation is so popular that it outstrips your ability to deliver the product in a respectable amount of time.
Lowered electronics costs and smarter technology means automation — and its ability to eliminate jobs — will continue to grow as a commercial process, no matter what the pay scale, mandated or not.
How often do you pay a highway toll to a human? Or a fee at a parking lot? Printing your tickets for a plane trip or an entertainment event are forms of automated transactions, too — although those gates are still manned.
We seem to want it both ways. We want commerce to be conducted quickly and cheaply — but that personal touch we also yearn for is expensive. We want an economy that produces more jobs with decent wages — then complain when automation trims poorly paying jobs.
So my meal at McDonald’s gave me plenty to chew on. Like, who knew you could adjust how much butter was on your McMuffin to three different levels?
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