Elderly South Koreans are struggling with hi-tech self-ordering food kiosks
WHEN 71-YEAR-OLD YouTuber Park Mak-rye tried a fast-food restaurant’s self-ordering service for the first time, the challenging process took longer than anticipated.
Park first pushed the “order” button on the screen, then slowly read the menu’s tiny letters and scrolled down. As she struggled to find the bulgogi burger combo she wanted for lunch, the ordering session reached its time limit.
“What’s wrong with this machine?” Park shouted, saying she would never use the kiosk again.
A fast-food restaurant near Seoul City Hall has reduced the number of cashiers and installed selfordering machines.
The eight-minute video titled “The Restaurant That Mak-Rye Can’t Go To” got 400,000 views on YouTube in one month, garnering 2,000 comments that mostly criticised the machine for being difficult to use.
Self-ordering kiosks have been spreading across the country, especially after the minimum-wage hike hit hard in 2019.
According to a survey by the Korea Federation of Micro Enterprise in December, one in five workplaces had cut staff because of the wage hike. Some had since installed self-ordering kiosks instead.
“Demand for the machines has been increasing since we started the business in 2011, but orders have exploded since December, which seems to be related to the minimum-wage hike,” said Ahn Ho-seong of Payself, a kiosk manufacturer.
Restaurant and cafe owners are the main customers, but hospitals, cyber cafes and study centres also deploy the machines to save on labour costs.
McDonald’s had the machines at 250 of its 420 stores by January 1. “McDonald’s has deployed the self-ordering kiosks since 2016, as part of efforts to change restaurants into ‘futuristic stores’ and offer better service by reducing waiting time during busy hours,” said a PR manager from McDonald’s Korea.
The fast-food chain said the self-ordering machines have a magnifier function and display adjustment for customers who struggle with placing orders.
Many elderly customers, however, were seen having difficulties at the restaurants.
“I’ve been trying to buy a burger combo, but it’s not as easy as it seems,” Chang Soo-young, 81, said at a restaurant near Seoul City Hall.
“I can’t read the small letters very well, and it’s hard to find the burger combo I want. It’d be much simpler and faster if I just ordered it through a cashier.”
Another senior customer at a fast-food restaurant at Seoul Station said his heart beat faster while he ordered his coffee.
“The process is complicated and people are waiting behind me in a long line, but I can’t find where to put my credit card. All these things just freak me out,” he said.
A message on the screen informs customers that ordering via a cashier is not possible at the moment.
“It’s kind of sad to think the world is changing very fast and I’m left behind. It’s frustrating, and it hurts my pride.”
The customers also need to check a monitor to see when their orders are ready. In November, a man in his 40s threw a burger in a cashier’s face, upset about the food coming late. The cashier said the order number was displayed on the monitor, but the customer argued he couldn’t see it.
Senior customers’ struggles sometimes impact store operations as well.
“We installed the machines to reduce labour costs, but ironically I had to hire more part-time workers to help elderly customers use the machines,” said the owner of an eatery.
Elderly customers account for 20 per cent of sales, he said.
“About 90 per cent of elderly customers walk straight to the counter, throw 1,000 won at the staff and say, ‘Just give me a cup of black coffee.’ Many of them know the kiosk is there, but they often say they failed to order correctly at fast-food restaurants.”
Repeated failure at using the hi-tech ordering service can impair people’s self-reliance and trigger depression, an expert said.
“The feeling of being left behind can make old people feel depressed and degrade the quality of their lives,” said Chung Soon-dool, a social-welfare professor at Ewha Womans University.
“It also can make old people believe that the world is changing in favour of young people, which can lead to generational conflicts.”
To solve the problem, the professor stressed the importance of educating seniors to help them adapt to new tech.
“A little help from the staff, such as letting them order in an analog way, would be needed sometimes while they get used to the technology.”
On her way back home, the elderly YouTuber Park gave her friend a few tips for using the self-ordering system.
“You should bring your reading glasses, a chair in case you can’t reach the top of the screen and a credit card because the machine doesn’t take cash!”