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food order pickup in a drive-thru

The Arrival Experience Hinges on Mobile Location

Here are the key aspects of mobile location technology, what matters and what brands should consider before making the investment.
Amid the health crisis, drive-thru and curbside visits surged and mobile quickly became a linchpin for brands to connect with their customers.
Drive-thru visits have increased 36% since the early days of the pandemic with 9 out of 10 visiting in May 2021, according to the State of What Feeds Us report. And curbside visits hit a high in February 2021 with 77% of consumers utilizing the more contactless pickup option at fast food restaurants, according to the report. 
And gradually, the arrival experience, including wait times, became a critical focus area for brands.

Creating a Frictionless Pickup Experience

But the technology initiatives designed to support off-premise strategies have yet to fully address frictionless order pickups. In fact, the report revealed the arrival experience is failing. One-third of consumers are required to call or text to notify staff of their arrival for curbside pickup orders while some have to park and flag down staff or walk inside to receive their order. 

Now restaurant brands are beginning to lean on mobile location from a number of technology providers as the solution for reducing that friction, improving speed and convenience, and ultimately boosting the customer experience. Following are key aspects of mobile location technology, what matters and what brands should consider before making the investment.

Why accuracy is an imperative

When location detection is highly accurate, there’s potential for a store and its staff to know when a customer is on their way, their estimated time of arrival, and be alerted the moment that customer arrives. As a result, orders can be properly timed and at the ready, the customer can be greeted by name, wait times are diminished, and friction is substantially reduced from the customer journey beginning to end.

When considering accuracy, it’s important to understand how immediate the detection is. As an example, if your customers are detected 60-90 seconds after the initial spot, it’s possible they would have moved away from that spot. Hence, this means you miss a critical moment to update them upon approach, provide instructions at pickup or simply send out a welcome message. Additionally, some solutions indicate detection at 20-100 meter radius, which could mean that your users are across the street instead of at your actual store. In these instances, for example, it would be foolhardy to send out a welcome message. 

As brands begin to ramp up their mobile location technology solutions, accuracy is mission critical. 

First there was Bluetooth plus beacons

There have been multiple use cases of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology, which is native to iOS and Android, used to listen to beacons and specific to phones. Among the most popular use cases for restaurants is BLE beacons. These small wireless devices powered by batteries that use BLE signals were introduced with the promise of delivering efficient location detection. As an example, beacons can support foot traffic count upon entry or exit, but may require multiple beacons to ultimately determine if a customer has entered or exited or to determine the customer’s exact location when on site. Similarly, beacons can be used for asset management where objects are more stationary. For more advanced use cases, beacons may run into limitations.  

When considering a beacon strategy, it’s important to consider various challenges and cost factors. With beacons, accuracy is dependent on signal strength and that signal is highly sensitive, especially in relation to a customer’s mobile device. Beacon placement is tricky and devices are highly vulnerable to obstruction and failure. Losing just one beacon signal can significantly limit location accuracy. Each use case requires various clusters of beacons to trilaterate location, a calculation used in the process of determining the exact location of a point in relation to various points. While the initial cost might appear to be economical, unanticipated expenses can quickly accumulate when an extensive number of beacons are required across numerous touchpoints. Beacons also require constant monitoring, maintenance and battery replacement every six months to a year translating to additional labor costs.

And, if you do want to use beacons to understand user arrival and location, there’s still mother nature to contend with as weather impacts signal strength. Signals can be blocked by a car and if a phone happens to be under the seat, in a handbag or glove box, it can be very difficult to detect with accuracy. As such, beacons and hardware equivalents are more suitable for indoor use. 

While beacons might be sufficient for specific use cases such as indoor dining, the process of developing a robust beacon solution and implementing it across various restaurant locations has proven to be an arduous process. The native Bluetooth beacon solution is often unreliable, especially in the long run, given the complexity of the solution. 

Geofencing is taking hold

Other location technology solutions such as geofencing have emerged which deliver more reliable location insights and superior accuracy. With geofencing, virtual boundaries are set around specific locations that measure when a customer enters or exits. These boundaries are predefined and placed in various areas such as the drive-thru lane, speaker box, pickup window, and curbside spots as well as store entrances. Rather than requiring delicate bundles of hardware like beacons to be placed around the restaurant, geofencing technology is embedded directly into a restaurant’s mobile app.

Hyper accuracy allows staff to be alerted when customers are on their way, receive an ETA and be notified the moment they arrive so orders can be prepared and ready and wait time can be dramatically reduced. With smarter arrival technology, restaurants are able to deliver more personalized service layered with a unique brand experience that’s seamless and more convenient than ever before. It’s that level of service that boosts loyalty and wins new customers.

Mobile location technology will continue to evolve

As we welcome the post-pandemic era, competition is only increasing between both restaurant brands and restaurant categories including fast food and fast casual. There’s a race to find technology solutions that reduce friction and deliver on rising demand for speed and convenience throughout the customer journey, end-to-end. Getting the arrival experience right is an integral component of the customer experience and accuracy has become the strategic advantage.

Like all strategic technology investments, it’s important to weigh all of the costs including resources that will be required in both the short and long term. Reliability, implementation and maintenance all factor in. Another crucial consideration is the potential for the technology to scale as the brand and customer expectations evolve.

We’re on the cusp of the next wave of restaurant experiences and location technology is sure to play a big role both in the short and long term as more use cases emerge. Soon brands will rely on data and insights generated by location detection to drive key business and marketing decisions around the menu, loyalty programs, promotions, logistics and more. Imagine the advantage of understanding when it’s the right time to optimize, identifying bottlenecks at individual stores so they can be fixed and, ultimately, increasing the lifetime value of every customer.

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Filip Eldic
Filip Eldic, co-founder and CPO of Bluedot

Arrival is just the beginning. 

About the Author

Filip Eldic is the co-founder and CPO of Bluedot. Bluedot’s hyper accurate location technology for mobile apps powers meaningful interactions between brands and their customers. Filip is a global advisory board member at the Location Based Marketing Association, helping to shape the direction of the Association and the future of marketing. He also serves as a mentor at a range of accelerators including muru-D and the Melbourne Accelerator Program.
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