The Future of Digital Menu Boards
The idea of digital menu boards has been around much longer than most people realize. The technology that first made it a practical solution was the development of flat panel TV’s. Initially, software and hardware were too expensive and difficult to use to make it practical for the major QSR chains to roll out digital menu board systems, even though they understood the tremendous value.
The widespread consumer use of flat panel TV’s and computers brought the hardware prices down to a practical level and huge improvements were made in software as well as much lower costs. However, the cost of outdoor displays for use in the drive-thru lanes has remained very high because of the lack of a consumer market and is now the major objection of the large chains.
Most people agree digital menu boards will replace the current menu board systems; timing is the only question. I believe there is another obstacle that has to be overcome and that is resistance to change. In order for restaurant chains to utilize all the benefits of digital menu boards they have to make major changes to systems and procedures they have spent as much as 30 years developing. These procedures are even is most franchise agreements. An example is how the franchisor may charge a certain percentage of sales for marketing funds to cover menu board graphics. That’s not easy to change.
Another change they have to overcome is their concern about the life and reliability of digital menu boards. Even though they may only receive a one year warranty on the old style menu boards and 3 to 5 years on digital menu boards they are still concerned about the life and reliability of a new system. They have gotten used to the old boards lasting 15 or more years because there’s not much that can go wrong with them, but if an LCD screen goes out it has to be replaced. Even though it may be a sound financial decision it is often difficult to make because reliability is so critical.
I do believe most restaurant chains will soon take the first step into the pool and make the switch. Like many other technologies once they take the first step there will be no looking back. That’s when they will start taking advantage of many of the exciting technologies waiting for them. Restaurant chains need to keep up with the behavioral changes of their customers and that will drive the use of the following new technologies.
QR and TAG codes will be on digital menu boards and used with smart phones and other consumer appliances for coupons, specials and collection of marketing information. Recognition software will be used to learn more about their customers and gain more marketing information. Customers will not only use their smart phones for coupons but will order and pay their bills with them and other appliances. The use of retina identification will make credit card use quicker, safer and maybe eliminate the need for credit cards and cash. Digital menu boards and holograms will be used to make the customer’s experience more virtual and automated.
When looking into the future this is something I can visualize. I walk up to the counter of my favorite Quick Serve Restaurant. When I approach the counter the company mascot appears on the counter in the form of a very realistic hologram and says “Good morning Mr. Sharon. Would you like your usual today?” I answer yes or tell it what I want. My food is then handed to me with a receipt and I leave. I can visualize that because it is now possible.
Another technology that has been available for some time but not used as much as I expected is the use of senses other that the sense of sight in promoting food products, such as the sense of sound and scent. Some of the best digital content I have ever seen used sight and sound together, although you have to be careful where you use sound in a restaurant. The sense of scent can affect the appetite much more than the sense of sight or sound. As an example, can you imagine the scent of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies at a desert bar?
These technologies may seem a little “out there” to many because of the time it has taken the market to adopt simple digital menu boards, but there is a big difference that will affect the speed of change. First, digital menu boards and displays will provide the platform for many of these new technologies. Second, unlike digital menu boards where the technology lagged the adoption, most of these technologies are already developed.
The quick rate of development of new technologies makes it very important for suppliers and end users to keep up with the new developments, while at the same time making it increasingly more difficult to do. As an example, I have seen so many really bad digital menu board installations it has embarrassed me and hurt our industry. Fortunately, thanks to guys like Lyle Bunn and Alan Brawn, the industry is getting more educated and the quality of work has improved.
Technological changes continue to happen exponentially faster. As the more flexible and forward looking companies adopt and take advantage of these new technologies they will be more successful than the old dinosaurs that refuse to change and they will eventually replace them. As you have heard before, it’s no longer “The large will eat the small”. It’s now “The quick will eat the slow”. If you want a great example of this check out a new restaurant chain called Naked Pizza. Check out their growth and see what they use for menu boards.