How invisible payments will revolutionise the restaurant experience

How invisible payments will revolutionise the restaurant experience

The friction of settling a restaurant bill

A good restaurant expertly streamlines the dining experience, from opening the door as guests arrive, to taking coats, showing guests to their table, taking orders, topping up drinks, serving food and swiftly removing empty plates. The customer is catered for from beginning to end – well, almost. The final task is still a sticking point: settling the bill.

Making payment, whether in a café, casual restaurant, or upmarket fine dining establishment, still involves tediously trying to catch a waiter’s eye, waiting for the receipt to be hand-delivered to the table, then waiting again while a card machine is located, and perhaps waiting once more as one brave volunteer tackles the mental arithmetic of splitting the bill across multiple cards. This entire process represents an annoying bottleneck, especially for a diner who may have arrived at the restaurant in an Uber, or considered staying home and ordering from Deliveroo – both of which take payment via a single, effortless action.

Retailers are finally catching onto this inconsistency, and the technology they’re using to shift the emphasis away from the transaction and onto the overall customer experience is invisible payments.

The power of invisible

An invisible payment is one that takes place in the background, from initialisation and authentication through to final confirmation. Instead of inputting a PIN or tapping a card, the customer simply selects a product or uses a service, then walks away. The transaction is handled by their smartphone or even a biometric scan. The action of paying therefore becomes secondary to the experience of enjoying the product or service – the thing the customer actually cares about.

The most ubiquitous example in operation today is ridesharing service Uber, which pioneered offline invisible payments less than ten years ago by doing away with the need for cash in taxis. Since then, invisible payments have grown exponentially, totalling £7 billion globally in 2017 and forecasted to reach £56 billion by 2022. The reason why apps like Uber are so successful is because you only have to enter your details once when you set up the app. From that point on, the customer journey is remarkably simple.

Amazon, which streamlined online payments more than 20 years ago with its 1-click feature, is one of the retailers gearing up to make invisible payments truly mainstream. Customers can already order from millions of products with voice requests through Alexa, and its Amazon Go bricks-and-mortar stores, which use cameras and sensors to track the items shoppers remove from shelves, could revolutionise the way we shop.


In May last year, Barclaycard began trialling Grab+Go for colleagues, removing the need to queue at the till. The process turns your mobile phone into a mini-checkout, you simply pick up the food you want from the shelf, scan it, then complete the purchase with a single click. A receipt is even stored on your phone.

For many, heading out for lunch can be a daunting task, but for Barclaycard colleagues, Grab+Go reduced the average wait from five minutes to just 27 seconds. There is clearly a bright future for the technology and we expect to see big developments in 2018. Technological advances such as this are being driven by a new emphasis on the customer journey and in turn, the need to improve the customer journey is driving innovation.

For example, tech startup Favendo installed beacons in a shopping centre in Marseille to understand how people moved through the complex. They discovered that shoppers who didn’t grab something to eat tended to visit just a few stores, then leave. However, 72% of shoppers who had something to eat would continue to shop. The solution: enlarging the food court which resulted in a 42% increase in dwell times.

Capitalising on new technologies doesn’t just allow businesses to create a better journey for their customers, it also gives them unique insights into customer behaviour and allows them to harness big data to adjust their business models to operate more efficiently.

An unlimited menu of possibilities

The benefits of using invisible payments in the restaurant industry are huge. Coupons and deals can be pushed directly to people through an app, offering – for instance – a free drink with the purchase of any main meal (the days of standing outside wearing an advertising board or waving a sign at passing motorists could be numbered). More personalised options are also possible. When a loyal customer enters the restaurant, they can be offered a reward, or even a customised menu based on their previous orders. For a first timer, dynamic pricing can be used to incentivise their first purchase.

At the table, diners can instantly receive a notification when the kitchen runs out of a particular dish, preventing the agonising indecision of choosing an alternative while the waiter stands by. And, for everything that’s still on the menu, nutritional information can be sent as alerts to diners’ phones. If you’re trying to shed a few pounds, calorie-counting apps might one day be able to link up with invisible payments apps making it much easier to track what you’re eating and keep within your plan.

Of course, the first and most noticeable benefit of invisible payments in the industry is paying for a meal without waiting, as that’s one of the main remaining pain points of eating out, and has already been tackled by food delivery services. Bricks-and-mortar establishments are now getting in on the act.