Automation, including "blended experiences" that combine physical and digital interactions, is one of the hottest tech trends for Q1 2024.
Between the tech innovations on display at this month’s Consumer Electronics Show and National Retail Federation’s Big Show, not to mention the mind-bending acceleration of generative AI (and, more importantly, its integration into practical applications), we’ve identified five top tech trends that will continue to inspire, challenge, and potentially supercharge the restaurant industry in Q1 2024 and beyond.
Here, we share perspectives from RTN members and other experts to help you make the best use of the hottest trends.
Automated Stores & Restaurants Work
One of the many tech lessons from NRF 2024 was that automation isn’t just emerging, it is thriving in an array of environments from convenience stores to supermarkets and even some luxury boutiques — and, of course, restaurants.
“Blended experiences, combining physical and digital interactions, are the new norm,” notes Jessica Bryant, Vice President, SMB Restaurants, NCR Voyix. “In the next decade, the most successful brands will be those that own the entire experience that guests and workers now expect. To do that, you need cross-functional buy-in and strategy on enterprise-wide technology architecture. Your technology must move at the speed of your customers.”
That enhancement of the guest experience is critical to an industry based on people serving people. “Automation isn't about replacing humans, though the benefits for staff augmentation are unquestionable,” says Courtney Radke, Vice President, Innovation, SageNet. “It’s about optimizing processes, ensuring accuracy, and freeing up human talent to focus on the creative and strategic aspects, allowing employees to act as brand ambassadors."
AI Everywhere, All the Tim
Generative AI has zoomed from shiny new object to table stakes tool faster than any technology in recent memory. That’s mostly because GenAI does everything fast. “It will quickly become part of nearly every system and process,” predicts Daniel J. Connolly, Dean of the School of Business, St. John Fisher University. “People may need to think about what they can do that AI can't as a way to justify their roles and value in an organization.”
In retail and restaurants, it is already delivering tangible results. “AI in the form of predictive analytics now guides inventory decisions, and chatbots are now enhancing customer support and augmenting the workforce,” says Radke. “AI has quickly become a cornerstone of delivering personalized, efficient, and data-driven retail experiences."
But it is essential for operators to keep a clear eye on solutions that leverage AI. “It is just part of how things need to be built now,” says Chris Lybeer, Chief Strategy Officer, Revel Systems. “So it is more important to see your core applications start to get ‘smarter’ with the help of AI than it is to go buy some stand alone AI application.”
AR/VR Is Just Getting Started
Advancements in augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) are accelerating at a pace that rivals GenAI. Potential applications for restaurants are poised to explode in the coming months. “The main area where we are going to see advancement, specifically in restaurants, is through augmented reality and spatial computing,” says Skip Kimpel, Principal of Independent & SMB Consulting, ConStrata Consulting. “The number of AR head-mounted devices hitting the marketplace is staggering, as seen at CES this year. With the launch of Apple’s Vision Pro in February, this will only rapidly advance the ‘think tank’ of industry leaders to the art of the possible. It will, most importantly, make these technologies mainstream to your potential guests.”
But the potential of AR/VR it’s not limited to head-mounted devices. “AR can be achieved through mobile devices,” notes Kimpel. “With the advancement of WebAR, developers can now produce applications that do not require a download from the app store but, instead, run through a browser. There is currently great interest around geo-located AR marketing using these techniques we are starting to see deployed in many verticals such as retail and hospitality.”
Cybersecurity Threats Have Escalated — and So Have Solutions
“Cybersecurity threats are growing,” notes Connolly. “As more companies rely on technology with always-on connectivity to support nearly every aspect of their businesses, they increase the potential targets and areas of vulnerability. But the good news is that technology advances are creating better tools to secure systems and networks.”
Tom Seeker, Chief Information Officer, Earl Enterprises, says, “Unfortunately, hacking-as-a-service (HaaS) is a big business. Bad actors on the dark web and elsewhere are selling automations and AI tools that can be used to try every trick in the book without intervention.”
"Ransomware, botnets, destructive Wiper Malware, and the criminalization of AI has led some to think we are fighting a losing battle,” says Radke. “However, the rise in cyber security challenges (both in quantity and ‘quality’) has also led to the development of more robust and sophisticated solutions to protect the industry from cyber-crime. From AI-driven threat detection and response systems to spot the needle in the haystack and take action with minimal human interaction to blockchain-based security protocols, retailers are investing in comprehensive defenses to protect their data and assets while also building (or re-building) the trust of their customers. It is a battle we can win so long as we absolutely nail the basics and then work towards embracing the idea that cybersecurity maturity is a journey, not a goal."
API-Driven Customization Has Moved Into the Fast Lane
“The API has opened doors and windows into different systems and solutions worldwide,” says Seeker. “Integrations and AI have allowed this world of connecting solutions to explode. A great deal of technologists are looking at the art of the possible every day now. Old legacy systems are now capable of new processes and solutions by utilizing these APIs to collaborate without exposing the systems to hackers and bad actors.”