Wawa testing touch screens for deli orders Officials say the system can speed service and aid profit. The challenge at about 15 trial spots is first-time users.

Posted: March 26, 2001

When it comes to ordering a sandwich for lunch, electrician Ralph Hoffman of Levittown is a touch-screen convert.

"At first it was confusing, but I think it's quicker," Hoffman said one recent afternoon, his lunch-to-go in hand from the Wawa store on Butler Pike in Plymouth Township.

Wawa Food Markets has just started testing an electronic touch-screen system for deli orders in a small sampling of the 518 stores it operates in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware and Virginia, spokeswoman Lori Bruce said.

Industry observers say touch-screen technology in convenience stores is growing because it helps stores move food faster, trim or reallocate labor, and gently "up-sell" consumers by putting more choices (extra cheese? extra ham?) at their fingertips.

Hoffman placed his order by tapping selections onto a touch-sensitive display screen about the size of a portable television at the deli counter.

That in turn generated a slip of paper printed with his order and its identifying number. With this in hand, customers can shop for other items while their deli orders are prepared.

Not everyone, however, likes the system as much as Hoffman.

"I hate it," said Wayne Weiderman of Philadelphia, an account manager for a local high-tech recruiting firm. "If you're in a hurry, it's ridiculous," said Weiderman, who said his luncheon companions needed extra time to figure out how to enter their orders.

But initial puzzlement passes quickly, said customer Rick Mellor of Plymouth Township.

"At first it was confusing," Mellor said. "I've used it about four times and have the hang of it." He said he expects it will speed orders in the high-volume Plymouth store.

Wawa has installed the touch-screen system for deli orders as a trial in less than 3 percent, or about 15, of its stores, Bruce said.

Corporate officials are not ready to comment on consumer reaction, she said. And they have not made a decision as to whether an automated system will be adopted chain-wide.

"It's a test in the early stage," Bruce said. "That's where we stand right now." She also said she did not know how long the trial would be conducted.

Consumer-friendly automation is making inroads throughout the convenience-store industry, said Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores in Alexandria, Va. "It is definitely a trend," he said.

"You can eliminate some labor or shift it to the kitchen," said Jimmy Frangis of Radiant Systems Inc. in Atlanta. His company outfitted the Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz Inc. chain, which has 252 stores in the Middle Atlantic region, with a touch-screen system.

"You can handle more customers during a lunch rush," Frangis said. That means waiting customers do not leave in frustration. And the system will consistently prompt consumers with additional purchase options: "There are lots of up-sells, which go right to the bottom line."

Sheetz customers have been using touch screens for five years, said Bill Riley, Sheetz vice president of sales and marketing.

Automation eliminates mistakes and is easy to use, he said. He estimated that a regular customer could tap out a detailed sandwich order in 10 seconds.

"The problem is the first-time user," Riley said. "We kind of train our managers to look for their blank stares."

If such automation is so efficient, why is it not universally used?

"It's a major investment," Riley said. But it works so well for Sheetz that the company is exploring placing touch screens at its gasoline islands so customers can order food while filling their automobile tanks, he said.

Mary Blakinger's e-mail address is mary.blakinger@phillynews.com.

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