A new technology fit for diners

Pay-at-the-Table system is being tested at a Md. restaurant

August 29, 2006|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,Sun reporter

After a meal at Potomac Pizza in Gaithersburg, diners can swipe their debit cards, punch in their pin number and pocket their receipt - all without leaving the table.

That's thanks to a new technology that allows customers to pay at the table with debit cards. The technology, developed by Columbia-based Micros Systems Inc. and San Jose, Calif.-based VeriFone Inc., is being tested at the Maryland restaurant and launched in the next two months at dozens of restaurants around the country.

But experts say such technologies will likely spread further than that, becoming increasingly prevalent in restaurants over the next several years.

Restaurant industry sales are expected to reach a record $511 billion this year, with consumers spending 47.5 percent of their food dollars on restaurants. As the industry expands, so will the ways restaurants can use technology to make customers' dining experience more pleasurable, said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research and information services for the National Restaurant Association in Washington.

"You really are going to see in the years ahead much more emphasis on tabletop payment systems as well as ordering systems," Riehle said. "And it really is a rapidly evolving area, which is a win-win situation for both the customer and the operator."

For the business owners, experts say the devices translate to a quicker turnaround time on tables and sometimes lower fees from credit-card companies. For diners, it could mean speedier service and the increased security of their debit cards never leaving their sight.

Forty-two percent of consumers would use technology that allows them to order or pay at the table if their favorite restaurant had it, according to the association's 2006 Restaurant Industry Forecast.

More than half of families with children surveyed said they would use the technology, while 62 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds favored it.

At Potomac Pizza last week, Caitlin Bilohlavek of Germantown was a case in point. A high school student who works at a nearby tanning salon, Bilohlavek is a regular at Potomac Pizza and has used their Micros Pay-at-the-Table technology more than once.

"I like it because you don't have to wait for the server to come back, you can just swipe [your card] and get out of there as fast as possible," Bilohlavek said. "It's quicker. It's easier."

While mobile ordering systems have been around for a while, at restaurants here and in Europe and at other venues such as car rental businesses, Micros says its Pay-at-the-Table technology is different because it allows customers to use a PIN and pay using debit rather than credit. With the debit function, Pay-at-the-Table brings a new twist to the Micros' existing hand-held payment technology, and the company hopes to see it used at restaurants for both sit-down customers and curbside service.

Micros is the leading developer of technology for the hospitality and retail industries.

The company's Property Management System for hotels manages services from front desk check-in and check-out to room inventory. Its Point of Sale systems can be used to punch in food orders, transmit the order to the bar or kitchen and track the data for reporting figures such as end-of-day sales.

The Pay-at-the-Table devices, which tie into Micros' Point of Sale systems, cost less than $1,000 for each unit and a charger, said Rob Regan, vice president of hospitality systems for VeriFone, which makes secure credit and debit card processing equipment such as the keypad and card-swipers seen at many grocery store checkouts. The number of devices restaurants might get varies from one per table to one or more per server.

Each splash-resistant, moisture-resistant hand-held device allows customers to confirm the price of their meal, swipe their cards, add a tip (the device also offers pre-calculated tip values for its users) and print a receipt. The machine cannot be used to place food orders.

"Where we take over is where the guest says, `Check, please,'" Regan said.

Executives from Micros and VeriFone say the technology was developed for several reasons. Among them, allowing consumers to use a debit rather than credit card, a trend Regan says consumers have been moving toward and can save restaurants money because banks sometimes charge businesses less per transaction if their customers use debit.

Also, the technology can speed up the process of leaving the restaurant after the meal is over, making for a happier customer and allowing restaurateurs to move tables faster.

Finally, Pay-at-the-Table was developed to help protect diners from fraud.

"We'd been hearing that customers or guests would prefer not to let their debit or credit card out of their sight," said Paul Armstrong, Micros' chief technology officer.

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