KFC Discovers That Mobile Isn't Nice. It's Essential

When global chicken fast-food chain KFC launched a major mobile test in the U.K. this month, it has had to learn to deal with realities that are very different than its more mobile-famous corporate brother, Pizza Hut. Although the two chains are both owned by Yum Brands (NYSE:YUM)—along with Taco Bell—the mobile similarities pretty much end there. Some 40 percent of the pizza online orders come from desktops and laptops, with the remainder from mobile.

At KFC, the mobile percentage is expected to be much higher. That's because people typically want pizza delivered to their home or office, whereas a bucket of wings is picked up—after having been ordered from someone driving or walking near the store. (KFC in the U.K. does not deliver.) Pizzas also take longer to cook—compared with preparing already-cooked chicken parts—making the "order and have it waiting for you" model ineffective for KFC. Instead, KFC UK will soon add a geolocation function (likely to be launched in May), so the app knows when the customer is truly right by the restaurant and can ask the customer if the order can be prepared.

Unlike other phone-ahead mobile apps, where the store gets a valuable heads up as to what the demand will likely be hours into the future, KFC's kitchen and other associates aren't even aware that any mobile orders (called KFC Fast Track) have been processed. That's true until the customer walks up to a small mobile kiosk in KFC (one that is situated far from the long lines of rush-hour diners) and scans in a QR code displayed on the mobile screen, said KFC UK IT Director Paul Borrett.

"The last thing anyone wants is to prepare the food and have it sitting there, waiting," he said. "Our customers expect their chicken to be fresh and hot every time, so our mobile ordering had to help us deliver on this."

The advantage to the customer? Avoidance of the long lines to place an order. The advantage to KFC? It takes that much of the load off order-taking store associates and—critically—delivers an extra-large bucket full of CRM insights.

Part of the value of being in a QSR conglomerate is being able to learn from the trials—the mistakes—of others. A KFC Australia trial recently explored letting customers select ordering times, so the restaurant can plan ahead. In short, it didn't work.

"All that happened was that the customer got there early and the food wasn't ready. Or the opposite and their food is getting cold," Borrett said, adding that some managers then felt the need to throw the food out and prepare new hot food, which delays the customer even more. "There are a lot of issues with preset times. What if you're stuck in traffic or traffic is lighter than you thought?"KFC UK's planned response is to incorporate the geolocation, but it's important that the app ask if it's OK to start final preparations. What if the customer is right near KFC but plans on shopping elsewhere for 50 minutes before picking up dinner right before she goes home?

Once the application completes an order, it uses a triple failsafe to protect the order. A copy is kept in the cloud—retrievable through the QR code and an order number—a version is displayed on the store's order system once the QR code is scanned and a copy is also retained on the phone.

But the order can't be processed without wireless connectivity because, among other reasons, the payment has to be processed before the customer arrives at the store. That's another key time-saver. If the customer is placing the order in a wireless dead-zone (think of a returning home commute on a subway), the app will allow almost everything to be done and will then save the data locally. "There's a static basket on the phone, which will be intact even if the app gets restarted," Borrett said.

In the current version of the app, that data would be lost if the phone itself was restarted, but the upcoming version in May is going to try and fix that. The issue involves app cache that only gets cleared on a phone reboot, rather than if the app closes and then restarts. "It wasn't a deliberate design aim to begin with," said one KFC developer involved in the project, "but as we've gone on we've realized it's more useful and will make it a definite feature in the next version of the app."

Once the data is saved in that non-online environment, the customer then has to manually try to complete the transaction later, when the phone is back in a more wireless-friendly environment. The app has no store-and-forward functionality, where the app itself would keep trying to connect until it was successful. Borrett said that is also something that might be added in a future version.

Another nice feature of the current version is that the mobile menu can be changed in real time, to deal with out-of-stocks or even maintenance. "If the store has an outage on a particular product or piece of machinery, they can switch off that menu item temporarily," Borrett said. "For example, if the ice cream machine breaks down, the manager can take ice cream products off the online menu until the repair is made."