You Want Fries With That?
By Justin Ried, Mon Jun 04 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Finnish fast-food chain Carrols uses WAP services to catch customers on the go.

The fast-food industry is one of the most competitive in the world. And you'd expect it to be - with hundreds of billions of dollars (yes, billions with a " b ") in annual revenues up for grabs. So it should be no surprise that its key players are on the constant lookout for ways to improve their services and get a leg up on the competition.

While on my way home few weeks ago, I stopped by the local Carrols franchise to pick up a soda. The young guy at the counter handed me a small orange flyer advertising the pilot WAP services project they'd just launched. I gave it a quick read as I sipped my soda and decided to follow through on it the next day.

After sending an email to the person organizing the pilot, he quickly responded by sending me the necessary forms and instructions on how to use the service, as well as a smart SMS message to my phone that set it up to use the service.

The pilot program, which 75 people took part in, was designed to determine how viable the service was, and whether customers would (or wouldn't) find it useful enough to keep coming back.

The test

In order to get things off the ground, I needed to transfer some funds to a holding account, against which my WAP purchases would be debited. This was the real sticking point, as the process proved to be rather slow. It seems someone on the other end had to manually credit my own phone number with the money, which itself took almost a week. But this is a pilot, and as such, you can expect the speed to improve down the line.

Once my WAP account was ready to roll, I brought the site up on my mobile.

Upon entering the site, I was greeted with Carrols' trademark slogan -"Hungry? What a good excuse!" - and ushered on to the submenu. Once there, you first choose which facility you're visiting, as there are currently three pilot locations in Finland.

Next, you get to the actual menu, where you can choose anything from hamburgers, French fries, desserts, drinks, salads, and complete meals. After choosing what you want and the quantity of each, you're kicked over to the confirmation window where you enter your assigned PIN and confirm your purchase.

During the final stage you also have the opportunity to say when you'd like to pick up your meal - ranging from right now to hours ahead. After receiving your order's confirmation number, you head off to collect your meal.

The results

So how's it work? Pretty well. You do save a bit of time by having your meal prepared in advance of your visit. It is novel? You bet. Being able to order something from your mobile and have it ready when you arrive is a very cool thing. Is it practical? Well, maybe...

I spoke with Heikki Lindfors, the product line director for Aldata Solution - the company implementing the service for Carrols - to see how the pilot was going, and what they've run into along the way.

TheFeature: What was the primary difficulty in getting the system in place?

Lindfors: The software has been reliable and the customers have been satisfied with it. It was the data communication between the merchant server and devices (printer and PC) in the restaurant that was the primary difficulty. WAP services are really easy to establish. The staff training takes only a few hours, while the manager in charge has to know how to manage the system - change the prices, take reports and solve problems, for example. Most problems arose because of the low frequency of usage; the user group must be big enough to guarantee the benefits.

TheFeature: Could the operator charge the bill automatically, so customers don't need to transfer funds directly beforehand?

Lindfors: Direct debit of the user's bank account is possible, and usage of a credit card will soon be a reality. In the beginning of the pilot we decided to use the pre-paid payment method only. Some Finnish restaurants already use direct debit. Operator billing is not the best way to pay for goods, but it will be possible to add other payment methods (though this has not been the most popular demand from our partners).

TheFeature: Out of the approximately 75 people that have been involved in the pilot, what has been their general response?

Lindfors: We targeted those who have the phones - which today are mainly 40+ year-old business travelers. They aren't the best target group to have when testing a fast-food implementation, though. General response has been excellent so far.

The WAP service connection takes around 12 seconds when using Radiolinja and 30 when using Sonera. Piloting continues - the next group will be bigger - and the service will be in commercial use when WAP phones (and GPRS) become more widespread.

TheFeature: Do you expect the food service industry in general to follow Carrols' lead and begin offering similar mobile services?

Lindfors: Yes. This has been a strong statement by Kivikoski (Carrols' parent company). Nokia could also help quite a lot by creating more end user friendly WAP services - taking on more i-mode-like functionality for example.

The start of a trend

Look for Carrols to expand their mobile offering later this year, and expect other restaurants to hop onboard quickly. Mobile services enable not only completely new services, they augment the old - making fast food even faster.

When Justin Ried 's not covering technology for TheFeature, he's surfing, sending email, buying veggie burgers, movie tickets, playing games, paying for parking, and looking for other fun ways to use his mobile phone.