Denver Broncos autonomous stores a hit


Empower Field with huge autonomous service Image: Denver Broncos

In Jay Morrison’s 16-year career with food company Aramark, he’d never seen as many National Football League (NFL) team Denver Broncos (US) fans take pictures of their friends and family buying hot dogs or beers.

The ‘DENVER BUSINESS JOURNAL’ stated that happened regularly this past NFL season at the Denver Broncos home pitch – Empower Field at Mile High Stadium in Denver (Colorado, US), which had nine fully autonomous self-checkout stores in operation, the world’s largest deployment in a sports venue.

Aramark Corporation, known commonly as Aramark, is an American food service, facilities and uniform services provider to clients in areas including education, healthcare, business, prisons, and leisure. Aramark is Denver Broncos food and beverage provider.

The Denver Broncos are a professional American football franchise based in Denver (US). The Broncos compete in the National Football League as a member club of the league’s American Football Conference West division.

The 76,125-capacity Empower Field at Mile High is an American football stadium in Denver, Colorado, United States. The primary tenant is the Denver Broncos of the National Football League. It opened in 2001 to replace the Broncos’ original home, the old Mile High Stadium.

Said Morrison, Aramark Resident District Manager of Empower Field at Mile High, “You can see the amazement of how easy it was when they exit. And I’ve seen fans run across the concourse and grab their friends or family and bring them back and make them go through the experience with them.”

Working with concessionaire Aramark, the Broncos first deployed Zippin autonomous stores during the pandemic-hit 2020 season, which offered an opportunity to test the concept on limited crowds. Such was the trial’s success that eight more were added for the 2021 season.

Additionally, 20 artificial intelligence-enabled self-checkout machines were positioned at six stands, and 52 self-order kiosks rounded out one of sports’ most tech-advanced concession setups.

Gary Jacobus, Zippin Senior Vice-President, Business Development, informed that the Empower Field at Mile High recorded the highest transaction rate per attendee of the 11 NFL stadiums where Aramark handles food and beverage service. Autonomous stores allowed the Broncos and Aramark to offer more variety (over 170 drink stock keeping units or ‘SKUs’), while cutting down average transaction time from around two minutes to 37 seconds. The shift to self-checkout markets morphed what’s long been viewed as a live sports chore – “Once you go through one of these stores, you don’t want to go back to the old way.”

The final hurdle to bringing the average transaction time down further is no long lines of fans, or cumbersome ordering systems, or really something the venue operators control at all.

Now, it’s the Instagram videos and gawking at the ease of autonomous stores.

Added Morrison, “The pinch point is the consumer.”

Seamless experience

The ‘DENVER BUSINESS JOURNAL’ further stated that according to minutes from the Metropolitan Stadium District meetings, Aramark invested $2.25 million to improve 11 food and beverage locations for the 2020 season, including the installation of a single autonomous Zippin store. Results from that Zippin trial helped formulate a plan for autonomous deployments in 2021. For quicker items, like packaged snacks and drinks, self-checkout was the best fit, for higher quality, fresh-cooked food, kiosks were the best option, in part because enticing imagery of the food could be presented.

Commented Alicia Woznicki, Aramark Sports & Entertainment Vice-President of Design and Development, “We really looked at how do we deliver the core as fast as we can, how do we get beverage-only transactions out of concessions lines and then how do we enable a more made-to-order, seamless experience for things that are higher quality. We tried to apply a unique guest experience and new technology to each of those different goals.”

Aramark made another $5.75 million investment in 2021 affecting 14 F&B locations. Thirty-five percent of the 70 permanent concessions locations at the stadium were fully tech-enabled and every seat in the building had access to mobile ordering for pickup and/or delivery of food and beverage and retail. That included eight specialty concept locations, as well as in-suite delivery across more than 125 suites.

Five seconds concerns

The changes during the 2021 season resulted in a 42 percent increase in transactions during peak concessions sales periods, as well as an increase in overall sales per game.

The autonomous stores enabled a revision of the venue’s F&B labor strategy, they made cashiers into ambassadors for the new technology, helping customers use the stores or kiosks. Points-of-sale were reduced significantly, and space increased with counters no longer needed, unclogging concourses.

Two of the stadium’s popular Tenders Love & Chicken stands were converted into a single location powered by 16 self-serve kiosks. This became the No. 1 food concept in the building, with per-cap spends up 32 percent when compared to similar stands. The average check at the kiosk locations was 19 percent higher than the traditional TLC stands.

Scott McDade, Aramark Sports & Entertainment Vice-President of Data Science, said that autonomous stores now account for seven of the stadium’s top-10 beverage stands, more positive proof for Zippin, which now has autonomous stores deployed in close to 20 sports venues. Jacobus said numerous pro sports teams visited the Broncos this past season to see the stores in action.

Automation enabled increased variety, which would normally slow down the operation, but that didn’t happen at Empower Field. Jacobus said the Zippin stores created a shopping experience in a concessions setting.

Despite the perusing, average transaction times dropped from just more than two minutes to 37 seconds in the Zippin stores. Thirty percent of transactions were 15 seconds or less.

Morrison joked, “The five, 10 seconds it takes a guest to get out their credit card, it’s just painful. It’s amazing, five seconds is now what we’re worried about. But that’s what it is.”

Tech push

What’s next at Mile High? More tech, including more of the Perfect Pour automated beer pouring machines, of which there are currently four. The Broncos launched a sustainable cup initiative with reusable cups that bear Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips loaded with three beer purchases. In the future, the Broncos want to sell fans a season cup, reusable for each game, eliminating waste and smoothing out the F&B experience even further.

Said Jay Roberts, General Manager of Empower Field at Mile High, “We’re not doing tech just to say it’s cool. We want to do it because it makes the fan experience better.”

The Broncos and Aramark plan to experiment with serving food beyond just packaged items in the autonomous stores and are building out better rewards and loyalty programs based on data collected through the tech deployments. The Broncos are working on with their app provider, YinzCam, and on the latter initiative. And sponsors have shown interest in the autonomous stores.

Concluded Morrison, “It’s just a great partnership working with people that continue to push you and say ‘what’s next? We want to be first. What’s out there? They don’t want to sit on the status quo and to be able to play with toys like this, it’s really exciting.”

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