The cafe & restaurant brand's VP of digital experience explains how the establishment caters to consumer demand for fast and slow dining, ultimately using technology to enable an end-to-end journey that puts the customer in control and offers greater transparency

In an world where nearly every experience has a digital substitute, brick and mortar is gaining a new appeal, serving as a digital refuge of sorts and meeting different customer needs than it did in the past. Tech integrations can help there, too—but should prioritize enabling a more intuitive and convenient physical experience, not be the focal point, says Mark Berinato, VP of digital experience at Panera Bread.

Ahead of his appearance at Shoptalk 2019, where he participated in the “Technologies Enabling New Store Experiences” session, Mark spoke to PSFK about designing the next-generation cafe, explaining how Panera starts with customer benefits and works backwards, prioritizing flexibility for both fast-lane and slow-lane experiences as well as giving customers more control and transparency along their path to purchase. Read on to hear why, ultimately, integrating technology into a customer experience that accommodates changing consumer behavior must take into account the entire end-to-end journey, going beyond the doors of the cafe.

PSFK: Are there any broader trends that you've noticed within in-store retail lately, and that you're leveraging in the work that you do?

Mark Berinato: For the restaurant industry, the major shift is to off-premise eating. Fifteen years ago we would have never imagined that a majority of guests would take their food to go or order for delivery. But at the same time, we know that the physical store is the heart of brand experience.

We’ve always thought of our cafes as an ‘everyday oasis’—a place to gather, relax, enjoy good food and to connect with associates. To us, that’s the definition of good eating. So with a trend towards convenience and digital, the question becomes, how do we design a customer journey that supports both the fast-lane and slow-lane experiences, for whenever the customer wants one or the other?

I’m one person at 7:00 a.m. on my way to work when I want a great breakfast sandwich and coffee (but need to be in and out in five minutes), a different one again at lunch—eating soup and salad with a client—and yet a different one at 5:30 p.m. trying to orchestrate a family dinner. The single-café space itself needs to adapt to the customer and their needs—to be seamless and intuitive, no matter what the job.

Are there any gaps you've noticed currently in how store experiences can serve customers, or any unmet needs?

Customers increasingly want digital to be totally integrated into the journey, but not to be the focal point. We’re on screens all day long, and I think physical stores can become a refuge—perhaps feeling more analog but powered by a digital backbone to give the guest all the convenience and benefits they expect.

Today's retailers are becoming increasingly conscious of not simply employing tech for tech's sake. How do you believe tech should ideally be integrated into the store experience to optimize it for customers? Could you also explain how Panera is doing so?

Tech has three main roles in the store experience: Above all is to make the guest (and associate) experience materially better, offering greater ease, control and transparency. Next is to be rooted in the total customer journey, not something that begins when customers walk in and ends when they  walk out. Finally, tech should amplify the brand and the associate, adding a touch of magic to the experience.

At Panera, we start by solving everyday customer needs. For example, a few years ago we launched self-order kiosks. The obvious benefit is speed—our guests can literally skip the line. But what we found after watching and talking to customers is that what they value as much as speed, and perhaps even more, is control and transparency. Customers value the ability to browse without the pressure of slowing others down. They value the depth of nutritional information. They value the photography that shows them the ingredients in the menu item. They value the ability to customize to exactly the way they want to eat.

We've replicated this model across all of our services: order ahead and pick up on a shelf in the café, or sit down at a table, order via mobile and we’ll bring customers their  food. But the solution must also be totally integrated into the back of the house and the associate experience. What good is it for a customer to order quickly, but not receive their food because we haven’t given associates the right tools to manage their workload, predict what they’ll need and empowered them to offer even better service? We’re using technology to support—not supplant—the associate.

What are some of the biggest store x tech opportunities for retailers today to up their edge and strengthen their strategy? Is it enhancing engagement, convenience, seamlessness, intuitiveness, a mix?

Convenience and speed is always a goal, and future possibilities are exciting considering emerging technologies like computer vision and near-field communication. Engagement is a massive opportunity area for brands. How might a retailer personalize a physical and service experience? How can they differentiate their service based on their customers' needs and their relationship with them? And, finally, I do think that engagement with the brand and its values is another opportunity. How can emerging tech like AR be used to deepen engagement? Can you combine analog and digital in a seamless and surprising way?

What do you hope to share at Shoptalk during the discussion on “Technologies Enabling New Store Experiences?”

I’m hoping to share my experience helping to evolve a 2000 café restaurant into a totally integrated journey, rooted in the soul of the brand through the physical café. I hope people gain an understanding of just how deep you have to integrate tech into the end-to-end experience to create an experience that will change behavior.

What's in store for the future of Panera's store experience? Anything you can share, maybe 1-2 years out?

We’re focused on our remodel program: how we can update the feeling and journey within the store, both for our brand and the evolving needs of our guests.

We’re also focused on thinking through the role mobile can play in the store. Everyone has a phone, so we're working on how it can make the space even better—be it real-time, personalized engagement to create new forms of convenience, or through augmented reality.

Mark Berinato.

Finally, we think about the role artificial intelligence can play in the back of the house. Regardless of the approach, we’ll start with the customer benefit and work backwards.

Panera Bread

Panera is designing a cafe experience for a digital world, enhanced by tech without being dominated by it to enable optimal flexibility and control for customers. For more from similar inspiring brands, see PSFK's reports and newsletters

Lead image: Panera Bread via Facebook

Body image: Panera Bread via Facebook