How Panera reinvented its customer experience in a tech-driven world

To say that the digital era ushered in change throughout the food industry is an understatement, and no restaurant or food retailer has been immune during the ongoing transformation -- a theme seen throughout the National Retail Federation’s annual Shop.org conference that took place in Los Angeles last week.

At restaurant chain Panera Bread, the company found itself at a crossroads when it had to reinvent its customer- and experience-driven brand to keep up with the changes brought about by the digital age. For 25 years, Panera had focused on offering an elevated brand experience through warm restaurant interiors, knowledgeable staff and better-for-you menu items, but as technology rose to the forefront, the company decided to relaunch its customer experience around digital and mobile, Panera’s Mark Berinato told attendees at Shop.org. In embarking on the relaunch, Panera sought to use technology to enhance the customer experience, he said.

A major driver for the effort was reducing friction for customers while maintaining smooth operations during lunchtime and other high-volume store hours, according to Berinato. To execute the company’s plans, executives spent about a hundred hours per week in its stores to work through the operations of the digital tools Panera decided to incorporate into its new customer experience. The key was ensuring that the chain could fulfill the new experience totally while offering an element of personalization, Berinato said, and the result was a slate of new tech tools including mobile apps, an order-ahead service, in-store kiosks, tableside mobile ordering and more.

“We were reorienting what we think a restaurant is,” he said.

One of the key pieces was making sure the new customer experience was consistent across all of Panera’s stores, Berinato said, which the company addressed by taking a local approach to rolling out its new digital initiatives, starting in one store to make sure they were really doing it right. For example, Berinato said Panera’s delivery service started in one market, and the restaurant chain took the time to learn about who their delivery customer is, and what the key moments are for capturing them. With each new, tech-focused initiative, Panera’s team would assess whether they were completing the job they were intending to do, and if they didn’t, making sure they learned from the experience, according to Berinato.

In-store kiosks turned out to be significant in Panera’s new tech-focused customer experience, Berinato told conference attendees. The technology allows Panera to meet customers where they are, where they can order at their own pace and get all the information they want and need.

“It allows us to have a better conversation with our customers,” he said. And “it’s actually giving people a super power.”

Through the kiosks, Panera can give diners access to their past orders, and they allow for a certain level of personalization, which makes diners feel like Panera is getting to know them, Berinato said.

As the restaurant chain continues its full transition into today’s tech-driven, digital world, the company’s effort is about how Panera can translate its experience-driven brand into that world, according to Berinato.

“It’s about tying our service into a broader cultural trend, which can be very risky,” he said.

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