This evening I went against my better judgement and, after alighting from the bus from Oxford in a state of extreme peckishness (at 10:30 on a Sunday night), thought I’d pop in to KFC for a bit of quick grub.  In “So I Married An Axe Murderer” Mike Myers utters the question “How could you hate The Colonel?” – well, if what I saw tonight is an indication of the direction The Colonel’s intending to move, then we’ve found our answer.

Aside from the layout of this particular KFC being a little confusing, the obvious thing you now notice is the row of LCD screens adorning the checkout/counter area.

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It very much appears that KFC are adopting the Argos method of operation now – the photo doesn’t show it particularly well, but the area on the leftmost end of the counter is marked “Order collection point”.

Being reasonably good at judging these things, I saw the chip&PIN pads attached to the screens and reasoned that they were there in case you wanted to pay by card & not deal directly with one of the KFC’s culinary servants – as my experience with computer-based checkout mechanisms is less than stellar, I patiently waited for the gentleman in the baseball cap to become available, and when I indicated my order he gestured & asserted that I needed to use the screens, adding that if I was paying cash I choose that option at the appropriate point in the process.  Actually, one of his co-workers came around to my side of the counter to show me how to use the screens, which I think underlined what a ridiculous system it is.

So, fail #1: new customer interface unclear that it’s for all ordering transactions, and not merely the card-based ones.

I was a bit perturbed at being forced to use these things – even places with established uses of self-checkout (Sainsburys, Waitrose, Argos) give you the option of queuing for a person’s attention should you so wish.  Even given the queue time it usually works out quicker & more satisfactory – not a statement I’d give up lightly.

The particular form of food substitute I’d mentally settled on was a Zinger Tower Burger (no chips or drink), and the screen’s initial menu options didn’t yield what I wanted.  To get to the Zinger Tower Burger I had to choose Burger Meal Options, then Burger Only Options (as all the options on the first page included fries & drink), and having selected my burger I was presented with a screen asking if I wanted to “meal it” by adding chips & drink?  This is just irritating – at least with the old system, when I asked for burger sans extra carbs the employee had a window to upsell on the offchance I maybe hadn’t thought of adding chips & drink, but in this system I’ve already implicitly stated I don’t want them by navigating an extra layer of menu.  And all the while I’ve got an employee standing to one side impotently gesturing to show me how the touchscreens work.

Fail #2: customer interface non-intuitively forces you through extra selection paths and then ignores your preference.

Without getting into a discussion with the food substitute vending assistant, it seemed reasonably clear to me that the thinking behind this innovation is to reduce headcount of front-of-house staff – however this ignores the highly developed British queueing instinct: lets face it, if there’s a person at 1 register in the middle of the counter, you know to form a queue at that point, as queueing at an empty position won’t get you served next.  Similarly, if they’re reducing to the bare minimum number of staff required then it’s counter-productive to have one staff member on the customer-side of the counter explaining how to use the screens.

Fail #3: system occupies more of newly reduced resources and also advertises itself as being serial interface in the traditional way whilst actually allowing parallel access.

As it was we’d automatically formed a queue in front of the one employee, and each person was having the system explained to them, so the ordering input wasn’t particularly high.  Even with 1 queue and large interval between orders placed, however, there were still 4 people gathered at the Collection Point waiting for their orders.  It struck me that the one thing you don’t want in a KFC is people milling about waiting – they do an awful lot of business during what you might call the festive hours of the day, primarily due to the fact that KFC gets exponentially more appealing (or, if you like, less disgusting) in proportion to how pissed you are.  In a traditional queueing system you’ll get 3 or 4 lines of people in varying degrees of drunkenness approaching the counter – this seems alright, because in many cases they’ll spend the time staring at the menu trying to figure out what they want, and depending on how badly affected they are, more time staring at the menu trying to remember what it is they’ve just decided they wanted.  Having made it through the ordering process, they’re handed their paper bag full of fat & carbs and sent on their way.  The new system means they’ve got to navigate a menu system, wait for the an employee to become free if they’re paying cash, then take the receipt and wait to one side for their number to be called.  Suddenly you’ve introduced unoccupied waiting time between people and their KFC, and there’s also the slight possibility that someone who came in after you might get served before you.  It just seems ill-advised, is all.

Fail #4: ambiguous queueing scenario and compounded loitering.

KFC have already suffered enough in the public image stakes – the name change from Kentucky Fried Chicken was in large part I believe due to the intrinsically unhealthy sounding moniker “fried chicken” (although the change also fuelled the urban myth that they changed it because what you’re eating ISN’T CHICKEN!).  If they’re now going to embark on a wholesale campaign of alienating their clientele by messing with a comfortably accepted service industry convention then it can only be good for their competitors.

On the plus side, it gives me 4 fewer reasons to want to go into KFC.  Which presently puts me at minus 3 reasons.