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What the Top Restaurant in US Can Teach About the Digital Economy

Stephanie Overby

Celebrity chef Grant Achatz and business partner Nick Kokonas have been shaking up the fine-dining scene in Chicago since launching Alinea in 2005. There, they combined art and science to molecularly deconstruct classic dishes, serving them in unconventional ways. Now they aim to disrupt the decades-old dining reservations process with a cloud-based platform that enables restaurants to sell seats the way theaters and sports teams do: with tiered pricing and same-day discounts to shift demand.

By charging customers ahead of time, the system also transfers the risk of costly no-shows to the customer and enables restaurants to better manage food and labor costs. Their company, Tock, boasts investors such as former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and restaurateurs Thomas Keller and Kimbal Musk (brother of Tesla Motors CEO Elon).

Recipe for a new revenue model

Kokonas, a derivatives trader and investor in more than a dozen companies, hates it when someone says, “That’s just how we do it.”

2016_Q1_creators_01“I like hackers,” he says. “People who probe for answers. They put together a quick solution, try it, and then quickly improve it. And then they do that again. It’s a mindset. Most corporations do not have that mindset.”

After years of dealing with what Kokonas calls the “absurdity” of reservations at Alinea—70% of people requesting prime-time weekend slots, three full-time employees answering phones just to tell people no, no-shows hovering at 10% or more, and dejected would-be diners—he and Achatz invented another way. When they launched their second restaurant, Next, in 2011, they created a proprietary software application to sell reservations to every seating. Guests buy nonrefundable tickets to enjoy the 18- to 22-course tasting menu, the same way they would if they wanted to see a play or watch a Cubs game. After all, fine dining was itself a sort of theater, Kokonas thought. In 2012, Alinea adopted the system; the restaurant that lost more than a quarter million dollars a year on no-shows virtually eliminated them.

Last year, Kokonas and Achatz hired a chief technology officer and developed a commercial, software-as-a-service version of that system for other restaurants. “I knew it would have demand if we rebuilt it robust enough to handle thousands of restaurants rather than just ours,” says Kokonas, who reportedly raised several million dollars to launch Tock in December 2014. A year later, Tock had 50 customers, from San Francisco’s Coi, where tickets cost US$220–275 per person, to Portland’s midrange Thai restaurant Pok Pok, where patrons pay a nonrefundable $20 deposit per seat. “We are adding three to five customers a week now,” Kokonas says, predicting that Tock will have a few hundred customers by mid-2016.

Spicing Up Bookings

Online platforms such as OpenTable or Yelp’s SeatMe have digitized the old-school reservation process, charging restaurants for each booking. Tock instead charges dining establishments a flat $695 fee and enables them to customize the system. Restaurants can offer patrons traditional, no-cost reservations; tickets that serve as deposits on their final bill; or all-inclusive entry. Journeyman, outside of Boston, for example, offers no-fee reservations, a $10–20 discount for those who prepay for their meal, and tickets for special events and holiday parties. And restaurants are able to price tickets dynamically based on demand. Alinea, for example, has offered heavily discounted tickets on slow days, such as Super Bowl Sunday or July 4.

By making pricing and seat availability transparent, Kokonas thinks restaurants can create more trust with diners. And few appear to have balked at paying more for prime-time seating: Alinea has remained full on weekends. Customers accept the different prices, Kokonas says, so long as the choice is theirs.

The digital ticketing system enables more personal interaction between restaurant and guest. “It’s actually easier to spend more time with customers,” Kokonas says. “Once a customer makes a booking, the restaurant can reach out by e-mail or text or through social media to confirm choices or dietary restrictions or to learn more about customer needs and desires and can do so efficiently and quickly.”

Dining on Data

Deep knowledge of regular customers’ habits and preferences is part of what defines the high-end dining experience. But the CRM system in most traditional reservation systems is “just a glorified Post-it note” of customer information, according to Kokonas. Tock users can import their own data into their existing CRM applications.

2016_Q1_creators_02“We can learn about the demographics, purchasing decisions, and timing of a restaurant’s customers in entirely new ways,” Kokonas says. “We can track customer preferences like type of water, coffee service, whether they’re left- or right-handed—as granular as a restaurant wants to get in order to serve a patron better. That certainly makes service seem more magical to the guest.”

Early Tock customer Daniel Patterson, owner of Coi, has said that by diminishing reservations uncertainty, the system enables his restaurant to staff more appropriately and spend more time focusing on the customer experience.

Fresh Thinking

The challenge Kokonas and Achatz are facing with Tock is convincing restaurants that there is value in change. “I thought they’d see this great system and immediately go for it,” Kokonas says. “We have to teach restaurants how to think creatively. [Some] are hesitant to embrace change, so we have to do a lot of handholding at first.”

That’s because restaurants typically pay more attention to food and service than to business operations, Kokonas says. And when it comes to technology, they opt for what’s cheapest or best known. As with getting diners excited about a new venue, good word of mouth helps. “In the past few weeks, restaurants have moved from a ‘fear of change’ to a ‘fear of missing out.’”


This story has been updated to reflect information obtained after publication. Tock is no longer hosted on Amazon Web Services and does not pass along its data hosting costs.

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Amazing Digital Marketing Trends And Tips To Expand Your Business In 2015

Sunny Popali

Amazing Digital Marketing Trends & Tips To Expand Your Business In 2015The fast-paced world of digital marketing is changing too quickly for most companies to adapt. But staying up to date with the latest industry trends is imperative for anyone involved with expanding a business.

Here are five trends that have shaped the industry this year and that will become more important as we move forward:

  1. Email marketing will need to become smarter

Whether you like it or not, email is the most ubiquitous tool online. Everyone has it, and utilizing it properly can push your marketing ahead of your rivals. Because business use of email is still very widespread, you need to get smarter about email marketing in order to fully realize your business’s marketing strategy. Luckily, there are a number of tools that can help you market more effectively, such as Mailchimp.

  1. Content marketing will become integrated and more valuable

Content is king, and it seems to be getting more important every day. Google and other search engines are focusing more on the content you create as the potential of the online world as marketing tool becomes apparent. Now there seems to be a push for current, relevant content that you can use for your services and promote your business.

Staying fresh with the content you provide is almost as important as ensuring high-quality content. Customers will pay more attention if your content is relevant and timely.

  1. Mobile assets and paid social media are more important than ever

It’s no secret that mobile is key to your marketing efforts. More mobile devices are sold and more people are reading content on mobile screens than ever before, so it is crucial to your overall strategy to have mobile marketing expertise on your team. London-based Abacus Marketing agrees that mobile marketing could overtake desktop website marketing in just a few years.

  1. Big Data for personalization plays a key role

Marketers are increasingly using Big Data to get their brand message out to the public in a more personalized format. One obvious example is Google Trend analysis, a highly useful tool that marketing experts use to obtain the latest on what is trending around the world. You can — and should — use it in your business marketing efforts. Big Data will also let you offer specific content to buyers who are more likely to look for certain items, for example, and offer personalized deals to specific groups of within your customer base. Other tools, which until recently were the stuff of science fiction, are also available that let you do things like use predictive analysis to score leads.

  1. Visual media matters

A picture really is worth a thousand words, as the saying goes, and nobody can deny the effectiveness of a well-designed infographic. In fact, some studies suggest that Millennials are particularly attracted to content with great visuals. Animated gifs and colorful bar graphs have even found their way into heavy-duty financial reports, so why not give them a try in your business marketing efforts?

A few more tips:

  • Always keep your content relevant and current to attract the attention of your target audience.
  • Always keep all your social media and public accounts fresh. Don’t use old content or outdated pictures in any public forum.
  • Your reviews are a proxy for your online reputation, so pay careful attention to them.
  • Much online content is being consumed on mobile now, so focus specifically on the design and usability of your mobile apps.
  • Online marketing is essentially geared towards getting more traffic onto your site. The more people visit, the better your chances of increasing sales.

Want more insight on how digital marketing is evolving? See Shutterstock Report: The Face Of Marketing Is Changing — And It Doesn’t Include Vince Vaughn.

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About Sunny Popali

Sunny Popali is SEO Director at www.tempocreative.com. Tempo Creative is a Phoenix inbound marketing company that has served over 700 clients since 2001. Tempos team specializes in digital and internet marketing services including web design, SEO, social media and strategy.

Compelling Shopping Moments: 4 Creative Ways Stores Connect With Their Customers

Ralf Kern

compelling shopping momentsOn a recent morning, as I was going through my usual routine, my coffeemaker broke. I cannot live without coffee in the morning, so I immediately looked up my coffeemaker on Amazon and had it shipped Prime in one day. My problem was solved within minutes. My Amazon app, and my loyalty account with that company, was there for me when I needed it most.

It was in this moment that I realized the importance of digital presence for retailers. There is a chance that the store 10 minutes from my house carries this very same coffeemaker; I could have had it in one hour, instead of one day. But the need for immediate access to information pushed me to the online store. My local retailer was not able to be there for me digitally like Amazon.

Retail is still about reading the minds of your customers in order to know what they need and create a flawless experience. But the days of the unconnected shopper in a monochannel world are over. I am not alone in my digital-first mindset; according to a recent MasterCard report, 80% of consumers use technology during the shopping process. I, and consumers like me, use mobile devices as a guide to the physical world.

We don’t need to have an academic discussion about multichannel, omnichannel, and omnicommerce and their meanings, because what it really comes down to for your consumers, or fans, is shopping. And shopping has everything to do with moments in your customers’ lives: celebration moments, in-a-hurry moments, I-want-to-be-entertained moments, and more. Most companies only look for and measure very few moments along the shopping journey, like the moment of coupon download or the moment of sales.

Anticipating these moments was easier when mom and pop stores knew their customers by name. They knew how to be there for their shoppers when, where, and how they wanted it. And shoppers didn’t have any other options. Now it is crucial for companies to understand all of these moments and even anticipate or trigger the right moments for their customers.

In today’s digital economy the way to achieve customer connection is with simple, enjoyable, and personalized front ends that are supported by sophisticated, digital back ends. Then you can use that system to support your customer outreach.

Companies around the world are using creative and innovative methods to find their customers in various moments. Being there for customers comes in many different shapes and forms. Consider these examples:

Chilli Beans

A Brazilian maker of fashion sunglasses, glasses, and watches, Chilli Beans has a loyal following online and at over 700 locations around the world. Chilli Beans keeps its customers engaged by releasing 10 limited-edition styles each week. If customers like what they see, they have to buy fast or risk missing out.

Bonobos

Online men’s fashion retailer Bonobos reaches its customers with its Guide Shops. While they look like traditional retail outlets, the shops don’t actually sell any clothes. Customers come in for one-on-one appointments with the staff, and if they like anything that they try on, the staff member orders it for them online and it is shipped to their house. The 20 Guide Shops currently open have proven very successful for the company.

Peak Performance

Peak Performance, a European maker of outdoor clothing, has added a little magic to its customer experience. It has created virtual pop-up shops that customers can track on their smartphones through CatchMagicHour.com, and they are only available at sunrise and sunset at exact GPS locations. Customers who go to the location, be it at a lighthouse or on top of a mountain, are rewarded with the ability to select free clothing from the virtual shop that they have unlocked on their phones.

Shoes of Prey

The customer experience is completely custom at Shoes of Prey, a website where women can design custom shoes. From fabric to color, the customer picks every element, and then her custom creation is sent directly to her house. Shoes of Prey has even shifted its business model based on customer feedback. Its customers wanted to get inspiration and advice in a physical store. So Shoes of Prey made the move from online-only to omnicommerce and has started to open stores around the world.

While the customer experience for each of these connections is relatively simple – a website, a smartphone, an online design studio – the back end that powers them has to be powerful and nimble at the same time. These sophisticated back ends – powering simple, enjoyable, and personalized front ends – will completely change the game in retail. They will allow companies to engage their customers in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.

Technology will help you be there in the shopping moment. The best technology won’t annoy your customers with irrelevant promotions or pop-up messages. Instead, like a good friend, it will know how to engage with customers and when to leave them alone – how to truly connect with customers instead of manage them. Consequently, customer relationship management as we know it is an outdated technology in the economy of today – and tomorrow. Technologies that go beyond CRM will help retailers to differentiate. Aligning your organization and those technologies will be the Holy Grail to creating true and sustainable customer loyalty.

Learn more ways that business will never be the same again. Learn 99 Mind-Blowing Ways The Digital Economy Is Changing The Future Of Business.

Find out how SAP can help you go beyond CRM and support your retail business.

Ralf Kern is Global Vice President Retail for SAP and a retail ambassador for SAP. Interested in your feedback. You can also get in touch on Twitter or LinkedIn

This blog also appeared on SAP Customer Network.

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Ralf Kern

About Ralf Kern

Ralf Kern is the Global Vice President, Business Unit Retail, at SAP, responsible for the future direction of SAP’s solution and global Go-to-Market strategy for Omnicommerce Retail, leading them into today’s digital reality.

Robots: Job Destroyers or Human Partners? [INFOGRAPHIC]

Christopher Koch

Robots: Job Destroyers or Human Partners? [INFOGRAPHIC]

To learn more about how humans and robots will co-evolve, read the in-depth report Bring Your Robot to Work.

Download the PDF (91KB)

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About Christopher Koch

Christopher Koch is the Editorial Director of the SAP Center for Business Insight. He is an experienced publishing professional, researcher, editor, and writer in business, technology, and B2B marketing. Share your thoughts with Chris on Twitter @Ckochster.

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Building A Business Case For Financial Transformation

Nilly Essaides

There’s constant pressure on the CFO from the CEO to do better—to innovate, and to transform the finance organization into both a leaner and a more forward-looking analytics hub that provides insight and foresight to the enterprise. CFOs today must:

  • Interpret numbers instead of reporting them
  • Deploy enabling technology to automate low-value work
  • Scout for business and growth opportunities
  • Work effectively with Big Data to turn their teams into the brains of the organization
  • Act as true partners to the CEO, business leaders, and board of directors

Defining the ROI for transformation

Transformation sounds great in theory, but to get finance to literally go beyond its form—not an easy feat—executives need to see a strong business case and a tangible payback. After all, finance is all about the ROI.

Here are some solutions CFOs can wrap their heads around to help drive change:

  • Manage competitive disruption. Today’s business environment is rife with competitive threats. My last post listed five ways financial planning and analysis (FP&A) in its future form can help companies battle these threats. The cost of not transforming the finance function into the fast-thinking, forward-looking brains of the enterprise is the opportunity cost of falling behind. It’s the risk of becoming irrelevant through the inability to foresee competitive threats, or of lacking an action plan for dealing with the potential impact of such pressures on the financial health of the corporation.
  • Streamline processes. Obviously, there’s the dollars-and-cents savings that come from streamlining processes, using new technologies, and breaking down internal silos. For example, in many organizations, forecasting processes occur in different departments. Merging these disparate processes into one and using a single technology platform can save enormous resources in terms of systems and time. It eliminates duplicate entries of data and the need to reconcile discordant information, or the need to later argue about which number is right. It creates a single version of the truth.

Even within finance, things can be improved. Often the processes of budgeting, forecasting, and planning happen in isolation in different time frames. And operational and financial planning occur in different cycles and levels. By syncing up these processes, companies can get rid of redundancies. What’s more important, they can discover efficiencies and improve the quality of the end product.

  • Eliminate waste and free up strategic time. New technologies are enabling the finance function to automate low-value work and free up executives’ time to focus on strategic thinking, developing partnerships with the business, and advising management on how to drive growth. The payback is smarter decisions (faster growth, higher investment returns) while lowering operating expenses.
  • Look forward. Finance and FP&A today are shifting their focus from yesterday to tomorrow, from what happened to what’s going to happen. Transforming their mindset is key to helping the business move forward. Using techniques and technologies like driver-based modeling and predictive analytics, finance is remaking itself and producing faster, more frequent and—most importantly—more accurate forecasts. It’s giving management the one thing that matters most: time to pull business levers to affect future financial results. The payback is higher sales, wider margins, and lower cost of operations.
  • Change the mindset. There’s no transformation of the financial organization without a transformation of the financial skill set of executives. The first-quarter Deloitte CFO Signal Survey indicated that CFOs expect to embark on a wide range of efforts to improve the performance of their teams before the end of 2016. While foundational finance skills remain a must, to transform finance into the “A-team” of the future, executives must possess business acumen, diplomacy skills, intellectual curiosity, technology savvy, and a degree of comfort with ambivalence. They have to be okay with making decisions without 100% of the information. One can argue that the return on soft skills is soft. But it also means being able to move fast and grab windows of opportunity. Not all business cases are based on cost savings.
  • Build an analytics hub. The biggest challenge for CFOs today is to transform finance into the analytical hub of the organization and leverage Big Data to drive smarter business decisions—both in terms of cost cutting and in giving the business units advice on how to market, sell, develop, and grow their operations. That’s how finance fits within the digital enterprise. Finance needs to funnel Big Data from all corners of the organization—and outside it—to leverage its unique central viewpoint. It must bring the information together and run it through advanced analytics models to come up with causal relationships that explain what business initiatives are really moving the needle, what steps the company can take to improve results, and what its customers are doing and are likely to do. Digitizing finance has a huge payback: It allows companies to stay competitive in a digital economy.

Is finance transformation worth the effort? That may be the wrong question. The question is, can companies afford not to transform their finance function and remain relevant now and going forward?

Learn how the FP&A team at CF Industries Holdings Inc. prioritized business partnering options and transformed the organization to optimally support strategic goals by establishing an integrated business planning process at the AFP Annual Conference session, Driving Finance Transformation Through Integrated Business Planning.

For more of my insights on FP&A, subscribe to the monthly FP&A e-newsletter from my company, the Association for Financial Professionals. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter.

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Nilly Essaides

About Nilly Essaides

Nilly Essaides is the director of the FP&A Practice at the Association for Financial Professionals. She has over 25 years of experience in the finance field. Nilly has written multiple in-depth research reports on FP&A and Treasury topics, as well as countless articles. She also speaks at conferences and moderates financial executives' roundtables across the country. Nilly has published a book on best-practice transfer and process excellence with the APQC, "If We Only Knew What We Know."