Campus dining is a tough business. Space is usually tight. Class schedules and weekly routines make staffing difficult and create a tremendous amount of operational pressure.  For students, on-campus options can be limited and long lines and wait times are often unavoidable. At peak times, it’s a pretty stressful experience for everyone.  

Luckily, help is here. And it has come from an unexpected place: the students’ mobile phone.

Across the country, many campuses have turned to mobile ordering as a way to improve the customer experience at their retail dining locations. Letting students browse, order, and pay directly from their phone allows them to mold the dining process into their active lifestyle. The value, however, goes well beyond an added convenience for students. Mobile ordering creates substantial benefits for dining operators as well.  

To explain how, start by visualizing a busy coffee shop during peak time. Two cashiers take orders while four baristas behind the counter make drinks. A massive line of students is waiting to order and a second group of students congregates by the pick-up area waiting to hear their name.   

As each new student approaches the cashier, they are greeted (somewhat anxiously) and asked what they’d like to drink. After one last menu scan, the student orders a large non-fat vanilla latte. “Would you like anything else today?” “No thanks.” The customer reaches into her wallet, pulls out her student card and hands it to the cashier. With a quick swipe, the transaction is complete and a ticket prints out into the baristas' existing backlog of orders. Four minutes later, sweet, caffeinated deliciousness.   

Now, let’s redo the scene, but this time with mobile ordering.     

Our student heads over to the Union to grab her morning jolt. As she leaves her dorm, she pulls out her phone and opens her mobile application. Since all merchant and menu information can be easily accessed, the student chooses the coffee shop and selects her order: latte, non-fat milk, large, add vanilla. After reviewing the price and estimated pick-up time, the student makes her purchase and continues along her morning stroll.  

As she nears the coffee shop, instead of joining the snaking line, the student notices a classmate and says hello. A minute later, her phone buzzes with a notification that her drink is ready for pick-up (mobile technology also improves communication from the merchant to the customer). After a quick see-you-later, the student walks to the designated pick-up area, confirms the order with the receipt on her phone and heads to class.

In scene one, the student stood in line for seven minutes, spent 30 seconds to order and pay, and wrapped up her morning routine with four minutes at the pick-up counter. In scene two, the student still spent time waiting, but this time, she was able to build the process into her active, on-the-go lifestyle.  

From the student’s point of view, it is clear why mobile shopping allows for a significantly better experience. But why is it better for the coffee shop?

When the student places the order, the funds are instantaneously validated and a detailed receipt prints out. Since the customer already selected their exact order and paid, the ticket skips the cashier and moves directly into the barista’s drink queue. From there, the order is made and the student is seamlessly notified.   

With mobile, the student effectively becomes the cashier. Using our example, this means that every mobile transaction at the coffee shop has taken, on average, 30 seconds less.  Assume the coffee shop serves 200 customers over their peak hour and 25 percent are from mobile orders. The result is 25 minutes of timesaving during the peak hour. This allows the coffee shop to make more overall orders in the same amount of time and with the same resources. Not only did mobile positively impact the customer, but it produced a substantial efficiency for the coffee shop.

Benefits for operators

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In fact, when analyzing mobile ordering further, four additional benefits for the operator appear:

1. Automatic upselling built into the ordering process.
2. An expanded window of time to receive orders ahead of the rush (for example, class gets out at 11:50 and some students place orders immediately versus everyone arriving at noon).
3. No miscommunications since the student was able to select and confirm exactly what they wanted.
4. Less congestion in the dining area because students can order, pay and wait from anywhere (which can lead to greater walk-up traffic).

These benefits may not surface overnight. Despite their technological savvy, it takes time and effort to shift the ordering habits of students. Once implemented, the program requires constant support to run at full speed. Whether using internal resources or partnering with a third-party specialist, dining operators should understand mobile ordering is not a box to check off, but instead a transformation of the service they provide.  

In the end, mobile ordering isn’t about implementing technology for technology’s sake. It’s about making daily life more convenient for students. It’s about building a more efficient operation. It’s about creating a better on-campus dining experience for everyone.  

Ben Anderson is director of campus sales for Tapingo, a tech company partnering with college campuses to provide mobile ordering.