The digital dimension

SSP’s Group Director of Digital Propositions explains how the company is using technology to enhance the customer experience 

Richard Fellingham, who joined SSP from high street coffee chain Costa earlier this year, says that speed and efficiency are a necessity not a luxury in the travel environment. But technology in food service is about more than just being faster. “Travel can be stressful. Technologies such as digital signage (that illustrate clearly what is available, how long an order will take and where to go to collect it) put customers in control of their time, therefore helping to relieve anxiety. Digital tools can make the journey easier for a diverse audience, who perhaps need information in another language,  or might want details on allergens or carbon labelling.” 

This doesn’t mean that digital can replace the physical, according to Fellingham. “There are still plenty of opportunities to provide the personal touches which are so valued by customers, such as a warm welcome as a colleague hands over an order. We’ve even seen that when using digital aids, customers actually reward the personal service they do get with bigger tips, because the whole experience is so much better for them.” As well as making the customer experience better, new retail technologies can have considerable commercial benefits. “Clearly the more people we can serve in any one hour the better. And now we’ve done so much work on concepts such as order-at-table, self-checkouts and even our new frictionless stores, we can also see that average transaction values are significantly higher. The ability to recommend products and add-ons based on data insights makes it easier for customers to discover what they like and for us to upsell products they may not have considered. 

AI is also starting to allow us to automate the selection of the best products to present to customers based on what they are putting in their digital basket. Data we’re now collecting is enabling us to do some really clever things, such as around which specific products are most likely to appeal and should be put at  the top of the list we offer.” 

Digital technologies can result in labour efficiencies, removing the need for tasks such as order or payment taking, allowing colleagues to focus on other customer experience-enhancing areas, rather than a reduction in staff numbers. “An increase in sales means our kitchens are busier, so we can think about having more staff working behind the scenes rather than front-of-house, making the unit much more efficient.” 

A strategic approach is needed as technology is rolled out, and Fellingham doesn’t believe in technology for technology’s sake. “It’s important that we take a consistent approach across the business to get the most out of digital innovation programmes and to know that the digital propositions we use are working the best way for us at SSP, for our clients and for our customers. It’s not a matter of just putting in a fancy bit of kit – we need to understand what kind of technology ratchets up the customer experience where, and in what categories.  

For example, placement of technology in the customer journey is critical. In one of our stores in Copenhagen, we installed kiosks, but they didn’t perform well. When we moved them to a more visible location, penetration went up from 20% to 60%. If you get it wrong, technology is just a hinderance. If you get it right, it adds real value.”  

The power of AI  

Technology that’s making a difference to the airport experience is now up and running at two frictionless, checkout-free stores at Oslo Airport and Dublin Airport. 

Customers tap their payment card as they go into the store, pick up what they want, and are charged automatically as they leave. 

There’s no need to scan barcodes, interact with sales staff or download any apps. The technology behind the new store concept comes from two leading players in the field. Zippin’s AI platform provides a combination of camera technology and weight-sensor-enabled shelving to detect the items customers have picked up, while payment processing technology experts, Planet, created the payment integration to bring the frictionless walk-out process to life.  

At Dublin Airport the frictionless store is a food and beverage convenience unit branded as ‘Dublin Town To Go’. The concept at Oslo Airport is a Point convenience unit.