Comment: In praise of slack in the system

Colin Nagy explains why the fixation to create a hyper-efficient environment isn't always the answer to better business.

Colin Nagy is a brand strategist based in New York and Los Angeles.

Sometimes automation makes sense. I was walking through Texas' Austin-Bergstrom International Airport last week. Every store had a long queue, particularly the coffee shops. Costa Coffee had the good sense to put a large, automated machine that could make basically every kind of coffee under the sun. There was a simple interface: swipe, and off you went. 

There are new categories entering into this realm: Farmer's Fridge is a brand that offers fresh salads, served in nice tidy jars, from vending machines. You can get one on the go at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and not need to interact with anyone or queue. Of course, this type of automation is nothing new: similar vending machines have been around for years in Japan, in particular. But it makes sense that they're having a renaissance now in airports and transit contexts, especially when coupled with pervasive labor shortages. 

This is all well and good. But there's also a danger for some types of businesses chasing automation or the adjacent characteristic of hyper efficiency. They can lose out on some of the charm, touch and hospitality that characterize a place you want to frequent. 

It's happening a lot at places that are darlings of the new guard, like US salad brand Sweetgreen. So much of its business shifted to delivery and app-based ordering throughout Covid that when you show up as a real-life human trying to buy, it feels like you're an afterthought. One gets the sense that the trademark ‘Welcome in’ uttered by staff is an operational cue and protocol to not forget the real-life customers that are coming to buy from the brand, in the midst of fulfilling other orders. It doesn't always work.

Take Bluestone Lane, for example. Before Covid, it was a charming Australian-inspired cafe that made very good coffee in New York City. The employees and experience were the highlights. But, following Covid, it moved to an interruptive, app-based ordering process. No more interaction with any staff, and the experience feels impersonal. Instead of chatting to a friendly Australian to order your flat white, you feel like you're inside an optimized process. 

There are also the mistakes that happen with the optimization of experiences that should really stay simple: drinks are presented to the wrong tables, and the entire process becomes too clever for its own good. 

Just because you can make processes more automated, it doesn't mean that you should. Particularly in hospitality, where what you're selling is often intangible. Sure, people are coming for the tasty schnitzel at Fischer's restaurant in London's Marylebone, but they're also coming for the elegantly dressed staff, the decor and the vibe. The intangibles make a place resonate. And, in these types of places, we must all resist the urge to optimize and create efficiencies. Some slack in the system can be a good thing.

This article was first published in Courier issue 46, April/May 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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