Digital menu boards: Poised for U.S. growth

When menu labeling legislation was first passed, analysts speculated a rise in the deployment of digital menu boards across restaurants in the United States. Their ability to clearly display images of menu items, nutritional information, promotional materials and social media platforms all proved a strong business case for their implementation.

However, digital menu board rollouts have been slow in the United States, with just a handful of fast casual and quick-service restaurants utilizing the hardware and software technology. And of those that do, it has yet to be a system-wide rollout.

“My theory is that in the United States we have the Texas syndrome: It’s go big or go home,” said Jeff Porter, Scala’s executive vice president, Experts Group. “Burger King has not deployed significant digital signage in the U.S. because it’s another zero written on the check. Another point is to look at how many franchise owners there are in the United States.”

Domestically, recent deployments have included the Cereal Bowl’s first all-digital restaurant in New Brunswick, N.J., and restaurant locations in the Yum! Brands, Tin Star and Zoup portfolios.

McAlister’s Deli also is testing digital menu boards in two Louisiana locations.

“We’re calling it our restaurant of the future,” said Annica Kreider, vice president of marketing for McAlister’s Deli. “From the guest perspective, we have a digital solution, but we haven’t changed the décor. We hope that the guest still feels experientially the same.”

The restaurant chain is using the WAND digital menu-board system to showcase limited-time offers, its iced tea and its meals under 500 calories.

“For us, particularly, we want to test dayparting to drive the dinner daypart,” Kreider said. “Also, if there are certain things we want to promote, such as our speed of service, we can promote those things and drive the guest to the menu items that provide a quality, quick product.”

Guest reaction has been reflected in double-digit sales increases at the locations.

“It’s really been quite cool to see and right now we’re really just scratching the surface,” Kreider said.

Scala’s Porter said it’s much easier for smaller, regional chains in the U.S. to deploy a digital menu board system than it is for large restaurant chains with an abundance of franchisees.

“For the really large deployments it’s a logistics challenge,” he said.

European success

If its market size that has slowed down a complete digital menu board revolution in the U.S., that same factor has led to their deployment en masse in other international markets.

“In Europe, there’s a lot more competition,” said Oscar Elizaga, Scala’s vice president, EMEA, India & Latin America. “The focus also is on particular countries and deployment is more manageable, and financing can be obtained faster than the mega project that we would be undertaking (in the U.S.).”

Scala is approaching 7,000 screens worldwide for quick-service restaurant installations, with 60 percent of those screens located outside of the U.S. in countries such as Germany, Ukraine, Netherlands, France and Italy.

“Most of the ordering is still being done at the counter, but the digital menu boards are being used to capture the attention of the person ordering so restaurants can influence the decision in one way or another,” Elizaga said. “QSRs, in particular, will adopt digital menu boards as a way of differentiating themselves, but they have to first decide if that’s what they want to do and then determine how to approach that. When you walk into a Burger King in Germany or the United Kingdom, each location for the same company has its own marketing philosophy and approach to the market. In the U.S., someone like Burger King might pick a target market to get started, but at the same time be looking at the whole thing.”

Based on this initial test, Kreider said McAlister’s Deli will soon determine whether to make the digital menu boards available to the entire system.

“If they continue to work toward our satisfaction it would be something we offer to franchise groups,” she said. “Right now, we’re going to stay with the two locations that we have. We’ll probably test them for another 90 days and if we’re satisfied, will roll them out to other company restaurants. I think for us, like so many things you do in a franchise system, it comes back to ROI.”

Additionally, for restaurant chains, it comes back to innovative implementation. For example, one of Scala’s clients has created a napkin caddy with digital displays around each side of the box.

“That’s totally different than what anyone has thought about digital signage before,” Porter said. “And it’s not a major hassle to install it.”

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