Dunkin' opens first "fully digital" store in Boston

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Dunkin Donuts (which now prefers to simply be called Dunkin’ but we all know the deal) is opening a new store in Boston, but this one has a twist. Rather than offering a digital option of ordering via their app, this store is fully digital. You can still order via the app (which I have and use, by way of disclosure), but you can also drive up to the store and go in to place your order and wait. The difference is, you won’t be speaking to or even seeing a human being. There are a pair of kiosks there where you can place your order and wait to have it show up on a counter in automat fashion. There will still be a few human beings in the back, making the donuts and cooking the other food items, but there will be no human interaction involved unless you decide to take the risk of speaking to one of your fellow customers. This is apparently the safety-conscious future of mankind in 2021’s “new normal.” (CBS Boston)

A new kind of Dunkin’ has just opened in Boston. The Canton-based chain is unveiling its first-ever “digital-only” restaurant.

It’s located at 22 Beacon Street, next to Boston Common. The location only takes digital orders placed in advance via the Dunkin’ mobile app or at an in-store kiosk, and makes them available for contactless pickup in a designated area.

“The digital-only location offers Dunkin’s full menu of quality products fans know and love, and the traditional order counter is replaced with two in-store digital kiosks where guests will be able to place a customized order and pay for it using cash, credit card, or a DD gift card,” Dunkin’ said in a statement.

It was only a few days ago when we discussed how the robot revolution had arrived on the heels of the pandemic without anyone taking very much notice. That seems to be the case at Dunkin’.

The company is spinning this in a different fashion, of course. They’re describing the human-free experience as a way to “create an efficient, more convenient, and frictionless experience” for customers. I suppose there might be an element of truth to that if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t enjoy speaking to the staff. (Or just other human beings.) But the underlying realities are obviously quite different and the customer experience will be as well.

First of all, as I wrote about in the robot revolution piece, this doesn’t really have much (if anything) to do with minimizing the spread of COVID or any other social distancing issues. They were having trouble hiring for these unskilled labor jobs after the pandemic sent everyone home with federally enhanced unemployment benefits that seemed to last for years. The kiosk technology was already widely available, but it was expensive to initially implement. Having no other choice with fewer people willing to work, however, made it a more logical choice to install the kiosks, which receive no pay after the purchase is paid for, work 18-hour shifts without complaint, and never take vacations or sick days. It was really a no-brainer.

But as to the customers, what if the people in the back end up packing the order incorrectly? Surely someone will have to come out and bring a replacement, right? I suppose that’s not all that big of a deal, but the lack of a human being to ask for help will likely be offputting to some customers, at least at first.

Also, with no human eyes watching the pickup counter, how long will it be before unscrupulous people realize that they can simply show up and grab an order without paying for it? Yes, they’ll likely get caught eventually if there are cameras in the store and they can find a policeman to chase down a petty thief, but I’d bet you a dozen donuts right now that it will start happening more.

The bigger issue is the fact that all of those customer-facing jobs at that store are now gone and they will never be coming back. Having invested in the technology and effectively replaced the workers with robots, there is no incentive at all for Dunkin’ to scrap them and hire a new batch of high school graduates. This is a permanent change and it’s part of the “new normal” of our post-pandemic society. Welcome to the future. Robbie the Robot will be along to take your order momentarily.