Chili’s Grill & Bar (EAT) has spent the last six months testing tablets that allow diners to order beverages and desserts or pay their entire bill without having to flag down a waiter. Things have gone so well at the initial 180 or so restaurants that the company decided to install the devices at most of its 1,266 U.S. restaurants by the first half of 2014.
No, it’s not an effort to replace wait staff with machines and cut down on labor costs, insists Nicole Cochran, senior director of marketing at Chili’s. The table-top tablets give the dining experience a novel and modern flair, but that’s not why Chili’s is moving ahead with the effort. The real allure of the tablets, Chili’s has found, is that they reliably increase the size of the average check.
The tablets are made by a Dallas company called Ziosk and also can be found at some Applebee’s (DIN) and Uno Chicago Grill restaurants. Here’s a look at the consumer psychology by which a glowing screen discreetly encourages diners to spend more.
1. Leaving bigger tips by default. Despite being less reliant on waiters, diners end up tipping about 15 percent more on average, according to data from Ziosk. At Chili’s, for instance, the default suggestion on the tablet is set at 20 percent—a generosity-enhancing strategy that has also proven effective in New York City taxis, which are now equipped with back seat monitors. At the table, diners can go lower or higher than the suggested tip before paying—but unless the service was awful, who wants to be a Scrooge?
2. A bigger appetite for appetizers. Ever arrive at a restaurant starving? By eliminating the wait for a menu, tablet can boost impulse orders at the start of the meal—especially when photos of appetizers are streaming across monitors. Ziosk says tablets have increased starters sales by 20 percent at restaurants that offer them, although Chili’s hasn’t put its appetizer menu on the tablets.
3. Overcoming resistance to dessert. Those table-top tablet screens are a constant temptation. At Chili’s, pictures of molten chocolate cake and other sweets pop up while diners are still on the main course. Dessert sales are up about 20 percent as a result, the company said, and customers are ordering more coffee, too. Ziosk says that overall, its devices boosted clients’ dessert orders by about 30 percent.
4. Paying to keep the kids busy. Chili’s offers unlimited games on the tablets for $0.99, and the chain shares this revenue with Ziosk. The restaurant says about customers at one in 10 tables pay to play during the meal, providing an additional source of revenue and perhaps even a few minutes of distraction in which weary parents can finish their meal.
5. Despite the extra eating and entertainment, diners get out faster. Ziosk estimates that its system can shave up to five minutes off the meal since diners don’t have to ask for the bill or wait for change. That doesn’t sound like much, but during busy lunch hours, this can help restaurants increase traffic, says John Regal, chief marketing officer.