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Mullins: Fast food restaurants get smart to cell phones


Published:   |   Updated: March 30, 2014 at 12:10 PM

Faster than you can say “supersize me,” fast food joints across America are launching new cellphone apps that let you pay for your lunch via your smartphone.

Is this better than plain old cash? Is this the next great evolutionary leap forward for humankind since the first lungfish crawled out of the primordial ocean? Perhaps. I’ve tried some of these apps, and they’re pretty cool. Starbucks and Chipotle were first in this rush, and now we have Burger King and Wendy’s joining the pay-by-phone club.

♦ Wendy’s in particular has a special place in that not-so-healthy part of my heart that indulges in fast food, as both Wendy’s and I grew up in Columbus, Ohio. The company’s struggles over recent years were hard to watch. Decaying restaurants. Menu stagnation.

Five Guys absolutely lapped them, along with loads of other “better burger” joints. So news of innovation at Wendy’s HQ encouraged me. Maybe I’ll go buy a Frostie to dip my fries in!

What really happened was subtle. Wendy’s already had a smartphone app. Most restaurants do. They find locations and show you menu info. All well and good. Recently, Wendy’s upgraded its app — and the change could be easy to miss. How many app upgrades are pending on your phone? Mine has loads.

The upgrade added a payment feature, so you can buy your meal via your phone instead of forking over a credit card or, gasp, actual cash. The system works at 10 Wendy’s locations in the Tampa area.

Welcome to the club, Wendy’s.

So, what’s the value in mobile payments at fast-food joints anyway?

For sure, payment apps can offer a degree of convenience, or merely the perception of convenience. Just point your phone at a scanner, and poof, you make your payment. Somewhere behind the scenes, the restaurant’s Point Of Sale system pulls the payment out of your credit card.

Does that really overcome some horrible hassle? How hard is it to hand over a $5 bill? Does anyone’s elbow hurt by lifting their credit card up to a barista? Nope.

There’s also what I call Payment App Vertigo: One app for Wendy’s, another for Starbuck’s, another for Taco Bell. That’s a lot of profiles, and let me tell you, that will be an issue when you change credit card numbers or the card expiration date comes up. There goes your Saturday afternoon — spent updating your taco+coffee+burger+pizza app profiles.

(Personally, I’d like all these restaurants to just sign up with Amazon for payment processing, but maybe that’s just me.)

And yet, I give respect to this concept: Loyalty is in the eye of the beholder, and while the Taco Bell fanatic may think the Starbuck’s app is silly, vice versa may be true, and each person wants similar things: Deals, loyalty points, rewards, whatever.

What I’ve found among devotees of payment apps is there’s something else at work here that’s far less tangible, but far more powerful: A sense of membership. People feel connected to Starbucks in a personal way when they start using the payment app each time they visit. Their eyes light up. They whip out their phones with a sense of pride and revel in the perks that come their way from using it.

This is all part of a consumer tech confluence in food: Tablets at the table to order your meal, online ordering in advance, and even text-message alerts that your table is ready. All those systems feed into your profile as a customer. Companies absolutely COVET that data. It’s why places like Maggiano’s recognize you when you call for a reservation. Caller ID isn’t necessarily state-of-the-art, but it’s pretty cool when used that way.

Even more futuristic systems are coming over the horizon. There may come a day when simply walking into a store will activate your payment system and cups of latte will have RFID chips so you just walk out on your merry way. Some projects are moving in that direction and track your cellphone upon your arrival so cashiers greet you by name. Is that creepy? Perhaps. Is there potential there? Definitely.

Mobile payments are one reason any clerk atBath & Body Works can take your payment anywhere in the store so you don’t have to wait in line at the cashier.

There will be miscues along the path of adoption. There already have been. At one point long, long ago (about 24 months) many merchants and credit card companies were in the thick of trying to launch credit cards with wireless chips so you could just tap the card on a terminal to make your payment. Maybe that died out when people thought, “Wireless access into my pocket and bank account? Hmmmm. Maybe not.” In any event, that project hasn’t gone anywhere really, though it was a valiant effort. I suspect many people would prefer that fast-food joints start off by simply putting the right food in the bag at the drive thru.

At first blush, places like Wendy’s might not seem fertile grounds for innovation, but I suspect we can expect a lot more projects trying to prove that presumption wrong.

Meanwhile, here’s other retail, restaurant and trend news around town:

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If you like clearance sales, do I have great news for you. Sweetbay has been clearing out inventory in preparation for converting locations into Winn-Dixie stores. (Winn-Dixie bought Sweetbay a little bit ago.) Groups of stores are converting in phases, so check your local site, or take a road trip to others, because it’s 50 percent off anything in the deli and bakery, as well as any “Sweetbay,” “Hannaford” or “Taste of Inspirations” brand items. This is your chance to really stock up. Last year, I stocked up when a local Sweetbay closed down, and I still have a stack of Swiffer boxes, sunblock bottles and other goodies. All Sweetbay stores will go through this transition through the Spring.

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Craft beer is a super hot trend, but here’s a trend coming next. Hard cider and mead bars. If you don’t know mead, it’s an ancient beverage made in part from fermented honey. Mead is as old school as it comes. Beowulf had loads of mead in that story, and one’s social/political/military status was reflected on where you sat on the mead bench. Tampa will soon have a mead bench in Ybor City, at 1812 N. 15th St., backed by the people behind Cigar City Brewing. Owners say there are a few more permits to acquire, but they could be open in two months if the stars align.

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Every dollar counts, right? Amazon has started telling its bazillion Kindle e-book customers that they’re due a few bucks ($3.17 to me, f.y.i.) from a class-action settlement with a slew of publishers over e-book pricing. Apple recently did the same thing, parking money in your iTunes account. You’re eligible if you bought a Kindle book published by Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin or Macmillan between April 1, 2010 and May 21, 2012. The payouts will show up in your Amazon account and applied to future e-book or paper book purchases. Happy reading.

rmullins@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7919

Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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