The restaurant industry has experienced its share of challenges as a result of coronavirus-related lockdowns, even as states have eased restrictions and customers are increasingly venturing back to their favorite eateries. The National Restaurant Association reports that the restaurant and foodservice industry lost nearly $120 million in sales during the first three months of the pandemic.
Although some restaurants across the United States have permanently shuttered their doors, many have fought back by finding new ways to serve their patrons safely and efficiently. Now more than ever, restaurants must expand beyond the four walls of dine-in service to create consistently positive and engaging customer experiences through digital channels.
Many well-known quick service restaurants (QSRs) and fast casual brands have found success by trying out new ideas and expanding existing digital services. And independent restaurants should consider following their lead to ensure they, too, are able to safely offer top-notch customer service from a distance.
Order up! for digital channels
According to Deloitte, just one-third (34%) of consumers feel safe going into a restaurant. However, pickup and delivery services have increased as safety-minded consumers rely on digital channels to order and pay for their food. Online and mobile ordering empowers guests to place orders from their personal devices. It also eliminates the need for in-person contact and allows restaurant staff to maintain social distancing during guest interactions.
Even before COVID-19, digital channel use was on the upswing. This increase in off-premises orders is not likely to change anytime soon, as almost half (46%) of consumers expect their dining habits to remain at current COVID-19 levels for the foreseeable future, according to Deloitte. Having a digital presence helps restaurants capitalize on opportunities to safely reach out to and serve a wider array of diners by engaging with them online before an order takes place.
Be creative to entice hungry customers
Shutdowns and restrictions aside, some restaurants in this new era have made great strides toward keeping their business not only afloat but thriving.
One major QSR chain that has long relied on digital channels quickly sprang into innovation mode when COVID-19 hit, even though its dining room doors were closed. The company did things like introducing family meal kits available through drive-thru and delivery and integrated contactless payment methods such as the ability to insert a credit card into a reader (in a drive-thru) without employees touching the card. It even engaged hungry consumers by launching a video cooking series, demonstrating easy-to-make recipes using items on its menu.
Digital channels have helped another major QSR chain excel during the pandemic, too. Mobile apps are responsible for 70-80% of the restaurants’ sales – up from 20% of sales before COVID-19. The company went into the pandemic with a strong, growing presence in digital ordering, carryout, drive-thru and delivery. It had even installed pick-up shelves enabling customers and delivery drivers to get their orders contact-free. During the pandemic, it also began hosting a series of Instagram live streams that rewarded select fans with a code for a free entrée.
These chains, and plenty of others, know that having a digital presence alone is not enough. They know the secret ingredient to optimizing digital channels is to safely reach out to ensure a great, contactless customer experience, too.
Contact-free is key
Creating a contactless or low-contact environment requires restaurants to look attentively at everything staff and customers could possibly touch and eliminate or change processes when possible. Think, for instance, of using QR codes or digital menus instead of physical menus. Either of these technologies allow guests to view the menu, place an order and pay from their mobile phone or other personal device.
Contactless solutions let restaurants reduce their guests’ potential exposure to the virus while simultaneously delivering an experience that enhances customers’ comfort levels.
The restaurant industry has had its fair share of challenges but continues to weather the COVID-19 storm. Going forward, safety must become a top priority, and digital channels enable restaurants to provide a safe, comfortable, contact-free environment with customer experience in mind.
Many of them have already implemented apps to manage things like table bookings and curbside pickup. And the restaurants most likely to succeed are those that embrace all things digital and try out new areas: like investing in more technology, experimenting with menu items and taking advantage of new trends that include offering meal kits or innovative recipes. These are the restaurants that will keep customers coming back, whether their physical doors are open or not.
About the Author:
Dirk Izzo is President and GM, NCR Hospitality