Panera Bread Treats Their Customers Like (Pavlov’s) Dogs

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Pampered_MenialYes, the title is pseudo-intellectual link bait.

In case you forgot who Ivan Pavlov was, or why his dogs are famous, the Nobel Prize website can refresh your memory about Pavlov’s drooling dogs.

Although I consider myself more of a back-end programmer, I do really care about good user experience (UX) in the web apps I work on. Of course, that means I’ve become more attuned to user experience in my own life, in much the same way as former smokers are usually vehemently anti-smoking.

An experience I had at Panera Bread today at lunch really made me think about the total user experience.  Three facts are necessary background for my story of frustration. First, like many companies nowadays, Panera Bread has a rewards program, where you earn discounts or free items after you spend so much money with them. Second, Panera has gone crazy for online ordering—beside web and phone apps,  they have installed iPad kiosks beside their regular cash registers in their restaurants. Third, rewards that you could formerly claim just by asking at a cash register can now only be reclaimed if you order through one of these online ways, phone or kiosks.

I’ll let the comment I submitted on Panera’s website when I got home tell my story:

Went to Panera for lunch to-go today. Waited in line. When I got to the cash register, I gave the cashier my phone number and asked if I had any rewards on my account. She said I did, but that I’d have to go over kiosk or use my mobile phone in order to take advantage of the reward. She even offered to go over to the kiosk to help me order there. I thought that was very nice, but I told her that I thought I could handle it myself. I went over to the kiosk to order.

The process wasn’t bad per se, but there were a lot of little areas where it could be improved. I was in a hurry and didn’t read all the fine print, but then again, I imagine everyone ordering from a kiosk like that is in a hurry and doesn’t read all the fine print. I suggest you have your team read Steve Krug’s book “Don’t Make Me Think!” and then look a the kiosk app with fresh eyes.

A couple of particulars:

Good–I was able to order special bread on my daughter’s sandwich, and the order was right.

Bad–I was a little unclear about pick title went with which picture, and must have ordered the wrong sandwich, because when we got to the picnic we were going to, I had realized I had ordered, and received, a Chicken instead of the Garden Veggie sandwich I thought I was ordering. Luckily, I’m not a vegetarian.

Also bad–I didn’t think about drinks until our meal came out, and had to go back for them. That made me realize that, if I could have ordered from a cashier, she would have asked me if I wanted something to drink.

The more I thought about the whole process, the lower my opinion of Panera gets. Not because of the actual kiosk experience–you can make that better–but the fact that the company offered me a reward for frequent dining but forced me order a way I really didn’t want to today.

I’ve ordered online from many places before, I order real world items on my phone all the time. (For instance, I took 2 Uber rides in the last month, and I paid for street parking with a phone app last week.) But today I passed by several open kiosks to stand in line because–for whatever reason–I just wanted to order from a cashier, and Panera the company herded me into going back to the kiosk.

I’m sure that whatever business reason you had forcing me to the kiosk made sense to you, but you made at least this customer feel manipulated, not want to go back Panera again, and want to tell all his family and friends about his bad experience. I doubt that was your goal.

The cynic in me believes that, at best, Panera is forcing you to use the kiosk or online ordering so that they can collect more data faster about how well these new ordering methods work. At worst, they are trying to condition their customers to use these new methods so that they can fire some or all of their cashiers.

I know that I probably can’t influence the long-term goals of Panera, but if they really want me to order online, they should give this old dog a new reward, instead of withholding the reward I was already getting. As it is, they just succeeded in making me madder than a junkyard dog.

(Photo credit:  “Pampered Menial” by May be found at the following website: Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Pampered Menial via Wikipedia –

2 thoughts on “Panera Bread Treats Their Customers Like (Pavlov’s) Dogs”

  1. I actually work at panera and its just an automated machine based on visits, not price, one of the mobile offers was given as a way to get people to use rapid pickup. Corporate did it and the employees cant do anything really

    1. Angie,

      I regret that I sounded harsh and upset at the employees of Panera. I actually did think it was a poor decision by someone in the corporate marketing department at Panera, but that may not have come through clearly enough in this post.

      I do think the employees at the stores are generally very helpful, which actually encourages me to order from them, rather than use the automated machines.

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