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Tim Hortons, Burger King plan app in latest push towards automation

A Burger King sign and a Tim Hortons sign are displayed on St. Laurent Boulevard in Ottawa in this file photo.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The parent company of Tim Hortons and Burger King plans to launch an app Canada-wide this spring that would allow customers to order and pay in advance on their smartphone without lining up to pay a cashier.

The move by Restaurant Brands International follows a similar one by Starbucks and is the latest push towards more automation in the food service industry.

In the fall of 2015, RBI acquired Brewster App and tasked the startup's dozen staff to develop the app.

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"The first feature we're going to be introducing is ... the ability for a customer to have Tim Hortons (and Burger King) in their pocket," said Steve Greenwood, RBI's head of digital.

Since late December, the app has undergone testing in 25 Tim Hortons cafes in Ontario and 25 Burger King restaurants in Miami. The expansion would see the app rolled out to the roughly 4,000 Tim Hortons and Burger King locations across Canada.

In October 2015, Starbucks Canada launched a similar app at 300 stores in the Toronto area. The service is now available at various locations in the country, excluding Quebec and New Brunswick, according to the company's website. The technology is not yet available for users of its French-language app.

Automated customer service is part of a general trend as people become increasingly accustomed to going online to access services, such as making reservations or pre-selecting movie theatre seats, said David Hardisty, an assistant professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Mobile order-and-pay applications make shopping faster and more convenient by allowing customers to bypass lines — and for those immersed in their own world, possibly avoid unwanted human interaction, Hardisty said.

The push towards greater automation could result in cashiers being laid off or put into different roles, but Hardisty said he doesn't expect such jobs to be eliminated outright.

"Mostly everybody just uses ATMs and automated stuff all the time, but they still have tellers there," he said. "Stuff comes up that's just really hard for a completely automated system to handle."

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In 2015, self-service kiosks started showing up at McDonald's restaurants in Canada. Many grocery stores and other retailers also offer self-serve checkouts.

For RBI, the app could pave the way for other developments, like self-service kiosks, Greenwood said.

The company already operates self-service kiosks in Burger King restaurants in several international markets and they're being tested in the U.S., Shannon Hall, an RBI spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

Hall said individual franchisees make staffing decisions, but the goal of the app is to drive sales, which should result in more employment opportunities.

Apps also provide companies with an opportunity to build data on consumer habits and offer promotions and loyalty point programs to customers, Hardisy said.

"Once you, you're drawn in for one thing, you also get involved in other things."

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