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Welcome to HT’s 2024 Canadian Restaurant Customer Engagement Technology Study: What Guests Really Want. For our first-ever survey of Canadian restaurant customers’ tech preferences and behaviors, we focused on hot topics such as marketing, digital engagement, payment preferences, third-party delivery services, loyalty programs, and brand discovery. Here, we share insights and action items inspired by our data sets, including commentary from Kelly Higginson, CEO, Restaurants Canada, to help Canada’s restaurant operators connect with customers and forge fruitful relationships. 

Kelly Higginson at MES Summit 2
Kelly Higginson, CEO, Restaurants Canada, shares insights and action items inspired by HT’s 2024 Canadian Restaurant Customer Engagement Technology Study: What Guests Really Want onstage at MURTEC Executive Summit Canada, in Toronto, on June 20.

How Do Customers Discover Restaurant Brands?

The ways in which customers discover new places to eat have evolved significantly in recent years, with digital channels like social media and online ads and reviews becoming central to marketing efforts. But when we asked Canadian customers how they discover restaurant brands (Fig. 1), the top answer — by quite a margin — was word of mouth, at 73%. 

Is it counterintuitive in our technology-driven age for word of mouth to rank so highly? “There is a trust factor,” explains Kelly Higginson, CEO, Restaurants Canada, who joined HT’s editor-in-chief Robert Firpo-Cappiello onstage at MURTEC Executive Summit Canada, in Toronto, on June 20 to discuss our study data. “We’re creating an emotional experience — for example, when you get your morning coffee, your barista may know your name and the time you generally arrive for that 10-second interaction. So I’m happy to see that word of mouth is number one.”

We also noted that social media, arguably an extension of the human touch, ranked second, at 40%, followed by deals (30%), and online ads (23%). Online reviews ranked last, at 19%, which Higginson believes speaks to credibility. “As a former restaurant operator, I can say that when I realized that anyone can leave a review for a restaurant they have never even been to, online reviews lost some credibility.”

Action Item: Leverage positive word of mouth by delivering exceptional customer experiences.

Which Mobile Apps Do Restaurant Customers Use?

With apps playing a central role in restaurant reservations, reviews, ordering, and delivery, we wanted to know which apps Canadian restaurant customers have used to search for restaurant locations or to order food (Fig. 2). Interestingly, given the opportunity to select all that apply, survey respondents ranked three types of apps in roughly equal proportion: Branded restaurant apps at 43%, customer reviews/ratings apps at 43%, and third-party delivery apps at 42%. This suggests that app loyalties are fluid and that more than half of consumers may not be using apps at all.

Action Item: Develop a branded app but also maintain a robust presence in a variety of app platforms.
RFC & Kelly at MES Canada
HT’s editor-in-chief Robert Firpo-Cappiello and Kelly Higginson, CEO, Restaurants Canada, reveal HT’s survey data onstage at MURTEC Executive Summit Canada.

Top Technologies Customers Want When Dining Out

We asked restaurant customers to identify the importance of common technologies when choosing one brand over another (Fig. 3). The ability to preview menus and nutritional information came out on top, with 66% of survey respondents saying it was moderately or very important. Higginson observes, “We’re such control freaks now. We’re used to having all the information before we make any decision. We want to know about ingredients, calories, and allergens. It’s beneficial for the restaurant to have that information available to ease the guest’s mind.” 

Reliable and secure Wi-Fi ranked second, at 56%, which Higginson attributes in part to guests’ desire to use some restaurant spaces, such as cafe tables, work, socialize, or access information. 

The ability to track order status was important to 51% of diners, indicating a preference for staying informed about their orders. Similarly, 51% of respondents appreciate an easy online reservation process. 

Cashless tipping options are important to 49% of diners, simplifying the tipping process for both guests and staff. And 45% of respondents value the ability to pay for food via mobile devices, underscoring the popularity of contactless payments that can speed up transactions and enhance security.

Action Item: Prioritize technology that truly empowers guests with information and efficiency. 

Top Off-Premise Technologies Customers Want When Ordering Food

We also asked restaurant customers to identify the importance of common technologies when ordering food off-premise (Fig. 4). Ease of online ordering process was the top off-prem tech, with 69% of survey respondents saying it was moderately or very important. The ability to preview menus and nutritional information also ranked highly, at 68%, followed by food delivery (66%), the ability to track order status (57%), drive-thru (54%), and the ability to pay for food via your mobile device (53%). 

In addition, Higginson notes that Canadian restaurants are implementing subscription services, sustainability initiatives, and social media integration inspired by the inroads the retail industry has made.

49% of Canadian restaurant customers say they are willing to pay more for off-premise technology features they value, such as ease of online ordering, and the ability to preview menus.

Action Item: Offer seamless online ordering that includes order tracking, delivery, and drive-thru options.

How Do Full-Service Restaurant Customers Prefer to Pay?

We asked restaurant customers which payment methods they prefer when dining in a full-service restaurant (Fig. 5). The majority (53%) prefer to use a device at a table, such as a server-held tablet or tablet mounted on a table. Higginson notes that this is an area in which Canada is ahead of the United States in technology adoption, because servers are no longer allowed to take customer bank cards. Interestingly, 29% of Canadian restaurant customers say they would still prefer to give the server their bank card. Another 11% prefer to use a digital wallet, such as Apple Pay.

Action Item: Implement pay-at-table devices that provide ease of use and security to guests.

How Do Restaurant Customers Prefer to Order Food for Delivery?

When we asked Canadian restaurant customers which option they prefer for ordering food delivery (Fig. 6), 72% reported they prefer to order directly from a restaurant, citing lower delivery fees, fewer mistakes, and faster delivery as their top reasons for preferring “native” delivery. Only 17% prefer to order from third-party delivery services, and 11% report no preference. 

We know, from conversations with restaurant operators and technology suppliers, that restaurant customers use third-party delivery services had a much higher rate than these stated preferences. Higginson notes that customer preference for ordering directly underscores the trust factor and desire for control referenced earlier. There is a clear opportunity here for restaurants to win back customers, just as hotels have won back bookings from online travel platforms.

Action Item: Leverage customer trust in your brand by encouraging direct online and in-app ordering and promoting lower delivery fees, and efficiency of service. 

How Has Inflation Changed Restaurant Customer Behavior?

The rising costs of goods and services combined with the rising cost of labor has had an impact on restaurant prices. We asked Canadian restaurant customers how inflation has impacted their dining habits (Fig. 7). 68% say they have changed dining habits to manage inflationary pressures; 57% have made restaurant purchases less frequently.  

Action Item: Offer value-driven menu options and loyalty programs. 

What Loyalty Benefits Do Restaurant Customers Want?

Recognizing the need for restaurant loyalty programs to expand and reimagine traditional models, we asked Canadian restaurant customers which benefits they would like to receive from a loyalty program. Discounts ranked at the top, at 82%. Complementary products or services ranked second, at 49%, followed by exclusive experiences (24%), and personalized communications/offers (18%). 

Higginson, bringing our conversation back to the brand discovery discussed in our first data set, notes that no matter how much technology enhances the restaurant experience, true customer loyalty is still rooted in the human touch.

Action Item: In addition to offering discounts and complimentary products, stay focused on delivering exceptional, personalized customer experiences.
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