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  • Writer's pictureMargherita Vito

Self-Service Technologies for Food Allergy Communication in restaurants:a concept testing

In food service establishments, the prevention of food allergy reactions requires communication between food allergic individuals and restaurant employees. Current assistance is mostly based on verbal communication and often interactions with the server make customers dissatisfied. Frequent issues are related to the social embarrassment felt by client with food allergy and the uneasiness when interrogating staff about allergens, since not trained servers may be unable to respond questions and special requests. In this regard, technology could be a solution to generalize Food Allergy Communication in restaurants and improve the assistance by replacing servers in the role of communication media. In this way, the interactive marketing in restaurants would move from the Triangle Model of Kotler to the Pyramid Model of Parasuraman.

Fig. 1 from Kotler (1994) and Parasuraman (1996)..

In the last decades, the presence of Onsite Restaurant Self-Service Technologies is constantly increasing in the restaurant sector, but their use has never been studied in the context of food allergy communication. By consequence, this research investigates the potential of a digitalized food allergy communication process from the customer point of view. This technology is tested as alternative to current methods to deliver food allergy information directly to the kitchen staff and reach directly a competent manager, by ensuring customers’ independence from unprepared contact staff. Hence, a monadic concept testing was conducted in a questionnaire form, presenting a visual prototype in order to have a more realistic representation of the idea.

Fig. 2 Self-service technology interfaces prototype...

The online survey was spread in thematic groups on social media platforms and data have been collected for three weeks thanks to the help of two Italian patients’ Associations. Respondents were exposed to the concept board of the new process based on Self-Service Technology and were asked to assess its usefulness, ease of use and their attitudes. Tests were run to evaluate the impact of personal characteristics on the intention to use the technology and to evaluate if a structured digitalized process is perceived as different from current methods and creates value in terms of perceived service quality in the empathy dimension. Furthermore, process features were analysed with the Kano Model to investigate how customer perceive the new service process’ features, and their relation to customer satisfaction.

Hypothesis were developed as follows:

For questionnaire data analyses, SPSS statistical package has been used. In order to make the sample representative, ISTAT data of individuals suffering from all types of allergy diseases were available as possible reference to stratify the sample by age and gender. However, a sample rebalance was not applicated as the number of participants would have been reduced significantly.

On the 203 complete and usable responses, the following analysis were conducted:

· Descriptive statistics including frequencies were calculated to summarize the characteristics of the sample; to better illustrate the results, pie charts and bar charts were used.

· Descriptive statistics including means and standard deviations were calculated to illustrate customer perceptions toward current assistance processes in full-service restaurants.

· Pearson correlation analysis, ANOVA analysis and a multiple linear regression analysis were conducted to analyze the direct relationship between intention to use (dependent variable) and personal characteristics (independent variable).

· A one-sample t-test was used to evaluate Self-Service Technology option acceptance and its differentiation from current methods.

· A paired samples t-test was run to evaluate the effect of Self-Service Technology option on the perceived empathy of restaurant services.

The findings of the current study demonstrated that the 72.4% of respondents would definitely use a digitalized assistance to interact directly with the kitchen and being assisted by a competent manager, while avoiding servers’ encounter. Self-Service Technologies are accepted as communication media and that the intention to use depends on technology affinity, gender and age.

Moreover, the introduction of this redesign would alleviate emotional distress when communicating and would ameliorate the perception of empathy of the restaurant.

In particular, the independence from servers represents an attractive element, as customers do not expect this service attribute. This feature generates no feeling if absent, but a large amount of satisfaction if present. On the other side, communicating directly with the kitchen and assistance from the Manager are classified as one-dimensional quality elements, increasing satisfaction the more they are fulfilled. By contrast, their absence or weak values will cause customer dissatisfaction. Typically, customers use these attributes to evaluate and compare competing products or services.

Thus, 7 out of 8 hypotheses were accepted and it is possible to affirm that encouraging results about acceptance have emerged. Therefore, a communication process redesign using Self-Service Technologies can ameliorate the dining out experience of food-allergic customers.

From the customer point of view, the study results suggest that the concept of a process redesign based on Self-Service Technology can be further developed and the implementation of a structured digitalized communication process can represent a competitive advantage for restaurants. Moreover, the findings of this study expand knowledge about Food Allergy Communication and Food Allergy Management by offering an evaluation of a structured digitalized assistance as solution to generalise communication and to solve current gaps in restaurants’ interactive marketing that food allergic customers encounter when dining out.

Finally, although the study made these major contributions, it must be taken into consideration that the sample is not representative and, therefore, the study must be repeated on a stratified sample. Furthermore, future investigation must focus on additional antecedents of the intention to use in order to better plan where this process redesign is needed the most. Especially situational factors and type of restaurants should be evaluated as determinants of the perceived usefulness and ease of use. Finally, also the perspective of employees and the company must be investigated.

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