As and when you are able to go and have a nice meal at a restaurant, all things considered including the small matter of the COVID-induced lockdown, you might see a very different experience unfold. Dining out may not be the same as before, in more ways than one. We usher in the era of Contactless Dining. Whether it is a good change or one that is simply unpleasant, it is too early to say. But the change surely is here to stay, at least as far as the concept itself is concerned. And it is serious, because the likes of Dineout, Zomato and Paytm are already pushing their platform as your go-to once you are able to go out to eat, like in the good old days.
But what really is contactless dining all about? Basically, this means that when you arrive at a restaurant, you will probably have a Contactless Valet system which reduces your interaction with a human being and directs you to a safer and cleaner parking lot. You will walk up to the restaurant, but probably not have a human being usher you in. Chances are, you would have probably reserved a table and perhaps even chosen the one you’d want to be seated at. There will probably not be a human server to take your order—you will have to do it through an app on your phone. We are still finetuning this reality, and it is work in progress. But this largely seem to be the sketch of what is to come.
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Let us see what Zomato wants you to do. The popular restaurant aggregator and food delivery app insists that there would be three elements to contactless dining—that is contactless menu, contactless ordering and contactless payments. You will scan a QR code on your table to browse the restaurant’s menu on the Zomato app, and order from there itself. All modifications and order customizations can also be done within the app. And once you have enjoyed your meal, simply make a contactless payment using any of the digital payment options in the Zomato app—UPI, credit cards and more.
“We are building additional features on the app — such as the ability to order multiple courses, and the option to pay for yourself or the entire table — to ensure a hassle-free dining experience. Contactless Dining also ensures that consumers don’t have to wait to place their order or pay the bill. Thus, making the entire experience far more seamless and convenient for the users,” says Gaurav Gupta, COO & Co-founder, Zomato.
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The dining out and restaurant tech platform Dineout is also pushing the contactless dining experience. A recent Dineout report suggests that 81% of their customers would prefer to scan a QR code on their phone and place an order on an app or web platform instead of handling physical menus or the traditional order placement methods in restaurants. Digital menus are the way forward. Also, more than 60% of the respondents said they would prefer to pay using digital payment methods, including mobile wallets, instead of handling cash or paying via cards at the restaurant. At the same time, more than 96% of respondents also want better waitlist management, in case you are in a queue to get a table. There should be options to preselect seating as well as the availability of sanitizers at tables.An illustration of how contactless dining may work. (Image: Dineout)
The common elements across the board include the lesser need to handle physical menus, which will most likely have also been touched by other diners as well. Then there is the small matter of not handling cash, which can be pretty germ-laden, if you consider it.
Digital payments app Paytm is also getting into the game. The company has built what it calls ‘Contactless In-store Ordering’ for restaurants and eateries.
What Paytm intends to do is generate a unique QR code for partner restaurants and eateries, which will be prominently displayed at these establishments. A user can open their Paytm app, scan the QR code, browse the menu option and place the order instantly. The idea behind contactless dining is to avoid touching a menu card, for instance, and also reduce interactions with fellow human beings. The digital payments giant says that payments will also be online itself, with Paytm Wallet, Paytm UPI, net-banking, and cards all supported. The live order updates will also be available on the Paytm app.
“In the first phase, we are in the process of onboarding over a lakh restaurant which will help them to ensure social distancing amidst COVID-19 fears. This, in turn, will also enhance the restaurant’s efficiency and trust for the customers to recover their business while reducing cost overheads,” says Paytm in an official statement.
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All this does pose a few questions.
What happens to the staff that is on payrolls at restaurants already, since technology is effectively replacing their jobs? What are the options in case someone wants to get further assistance at restaurants, be it for orders or payments, which cannot be solved by the apps in question? Also, how much of a role do these apps play in the operations of the restaurants and as payment platforms for meals you eat there? Job losses may become a very real thing. No restaurant has yet said anything about this potential automation, but that is the very nature of technology taking over to do our jobs—humans are put out of work.
Then, and this impacts everyone who is footing the bill for eating out or even ordering in a nice meal. Does the cost of meal go up? When platforms such as Zomato, Dineout and Paytm offer to route your entire dining experience at a restaurant, they will not do it for free. At least not in perpetuity.
“To help the restaurant industry financially, we have decided to make Zomato Contactless Dining free (except payment gateway fee) for all restaurants across India, UAE, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey, Portugal, Philippines, Indonesia, and Lebanon for at least six months,” says Deepinder Goyal, CEO, Zomato.
There you go. There are no free lunches in this world. It is a fact. Platforms will charge restaurants a fee from every bill payment completed via their app. Does this mean restaurants hike prices to factor in that share which they will have to pay? Or do they stay away from this new reality, perhaps a fad, and risk being alienated by consumers too captivated by the health benefits of contactless dining—at least as we are told.
If you are a bit possessive about your privacy, you might not like this one bit. Contactless Dining using an app and a QR code and whatnot opens new realms of possibilities for dining platforms to make a virtual character sketch of your dining trends. Paytm says as much. “Our product can also be seamlessly integrated with the existing POS to offer a hassle-free & contactless experience to both the customers and the outlet. The restaurant owners will get a customized ‘Store’ page for their brand on the Paytm app calling out this safety feature, which will increase their visibility. This technology can also be used to promote special offers, discounts, and targeted upselling based on historical consumer behavior,” the company says in a blog post introducing Contactless Dining. Do notice the rather cool push by insisting it is all about special offers and discounts. That should get people on their side in a jiffy.
Personally, I am more comfortable with a human at a restaurant I frequent, to know my favorities. “Your usual, sir?” is a luxury that we all love, and so does yours truly. But I am not sure I want an app or an artificially intelligent platform to dig that deep into my personal preferences—and come up with its own conjectures in the process. Which may be wrong. A human will ask or clarify, highly unlikely an app will.
Also remember, what is on your phone, isn’t sitting inside a bubble. Any and almost every app on your phone potentially shares data with other apps. You might want to read one scary example led by the ever present Facebook, as described by my colleague Shouvik Das (read more here). Do you really Facebook, or any other app also know what you ate the last time you stepped out? Enthusiasts will say what is wrong, it is just a meal. But well, in that case, lets surrender our online privacy completely?
I am not saying that Zomato, Dineout and Paytm, and anyone else who may join the Contactless Dining game, intend to or will share your data with other apps. But till we get more clarity on that, better to err on the side of caution, isn’t it?
Like we said, this is still work in progress. There might be some over-enthusiastic implementations of contactless dining at certain restaurants which may or not work as well as they should, but important to remember that there will be a learning curve for everyone. It might just be interesting, but do not be entirely irritated if contactless dining doesn’t work well at some point on your date. What is undeniable is that it has to be sustainable for everyone involved.