Untapped Potential

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Untapped Potential

By Cihan Cobanoglu, Pelin Dede • Guest Contributors - 06/01/2005

The age of the e-commerce is here to stay. Now, in its fourth year, the 2005 Hospitality Technology Restaurant e-Commerce Study in conjunction with the University of Delaware finds that once again, while the industry has taken great strides in design and content of its online presence, there is much work to be done.

The criteria, which has been created from extensive literature review, interviews with restaurant customers and restaurateurs, held restaurants accountable for all aspects of their websites from overall look and feel to the technology use and the ease of navigation, right down to spelling errors.

Website selection
We have limited our analysis to twenty restaurant websites. To make a fair selection, we have randomly selected 10 restaurants with 10 units or more from the 2003 Chain Food Service Operator's Directory. This year, we added a new wrinkle as we took five nominations from Hospitality Technology readers. In addition, to maintain consistency year-to-year we included the top 3 restaurant websites (Benihana Starbucks and Burger King) and randomly chose additional two restaurants (Hooters Florida and The Pasta House Company) from last year's analysis. For a complete list of the websites, see Table 2 on page 34.

This year's sample shows a good distribution of well-known national and international chains as well as small and mid-sized regional chains.

Criteria used
The study, conducted in over the month of January 2005, used over 400 distinct criteria to evaluate the websites under seven major categories. These categories were: 1) technical specifications; 2) technology used; 3) site attractiveness; 4) ease of navigation; 5) ease of contact; 6) marketing effectiveness and e-commerce solutions and 8) legal compliance.

Under each of these categories, we had objective and subjective criteria. For objective criteria, we measured only once, however, for subjective criteria such as site attractiveness, we used multiple evaluators and took only the average of those evaluators.

In this year's study, we have seen once more that in the industry there is a wide range of commitment to having an online presence. There are many restaurant websites that were designed and operated by a dedicated team of Web professionals, while others offer a website created by non-professional web designers. Some companies update their sites regularly, even hourly, to reflect the changes and dynamic life of a restaurant whereas others were created once and never touched again.

With more than 400 criteria analyzed, it would be impossible to report all the results for each website. The following analysis is meant to offer insight in restaurant website design and development to better understand what aspects work and where improvement is needed.

Technical specifications
It's important for a website to load fast. So the study measured the loading time of the restaurant's home page at different modem speeds and average download time was calculated. Benihana got very low score on this criterion with 64.22 second of average download time. Similarly, Ponderosa Steakhouses also got a low score with 41.21 seconds. The best score in this criterion belongs to Coco's Bakery Restaurants with 2.12 seconds.

We checked each website for errors using a variety of Web browsers. Sandella's had the most errors with 14. All web page editors are not created equally, hence various Web browsers interpret the HTML differently. The study totaled the number of errors in each browser.

The highest number of errors belongs to Buffets, Inc. with 28 errors. The only site that did not have any errors was Cousins Subs. Faulty HTML codes can create errors and warnings. Hooters Florida had the highest number of errors (47) in this criterion. HTML warnings are important because they have a high potential to become HTML errors which affect the quality of the website navigation.

Another way that websites can get into a user's doghouse is by providing bad links. We counted the number of bad links in the first five pages of the restaurants' websites. Starbucks had one bad link. All others had no bad links.

Technology used
The study counted the number of words in the page title of the home page, descriptions, keywords and tags used in the HTML codes. Web pages should have unique titles, a short description, keyword, and tags. This way, it will be easy to be found by web search engines such as Google. In addition, this will help the internal search tool to index correctly and find pages faster and more accurately. Cousins Subs, Eat'n Park, Perkins Restaurants, The Pasta House, Wolfgang Puck, Buffet, Coco's Bakery Restaurants. Ponderosa Steakhouses, Houston's, Happy Joe's, Carrabba's Italian Grill, and Souper Salad were all missing some components.

In today's world, bandwidth and plug-ins can still be problematic for some users therefor offering an alternative way of accessing the information is necessary. Unfortunately none of the websites offered an alternative way to navigate the website.

Java and Java Script are becoming increasingly popular on websites, but can create errors if not done properly. Happily, the majority of the websites we checked did not have Java and Java Script errors. Yet many sites are not using the leading edge technologies available to them, such as DHTML, Active X, or XML. The Pasta House did not use any of these advanced web authoring tools.

These tools, if used affectively, can help your site draw attention. Cousins Subs used excellent graphics in its website. However, a short but effective Flash animation would have made the site more attractive. All restaurant websites can benefit from Flash animations with an option to skip it.
On the other hand, Carrabba's Italian Grill offers excellent video excerpts of Johnny and Damian's cooking show Cucina Toscana while Starbucks uses audio samples of songs for their music compilation.

The study checked if the website offered a plug-in for any of the additional components that required a plug-in. Although majority of the websites offered plug-in URL some sites such as Carrabba's Italian Grill and Perkins Restaurants do not offer any plug-ins. Websites such as Burger King offer attractive Flash animations. While some sites offer Flash Plug-in, Burger King checks the user's browser with a Java script to see if the requested plug-in is available. If not, they direct the user to a non-flash version of the website.

Site attractiveness
Site attractiveness was measured by the following criteria:

- Ease of use
- Clarity and simplicity
- Elegance and sophistication of core design concepts
- Typography and font styles
- Originality of components
- Visual appeal
- Contrast between background and text
- Effectiveness of unified feel
- General layout and use of space
- Complexity and quality of tables
- Use of borders, dividers, rules
- Length of scrolling pages

Eat'n Park, Coco's Bakery Restaurants, Burger King, and Souper Salad scored perfectly in these criteria. They all used advanced HTML authoring techniques and high quality yet small graphic files to attract the visitors to the website.

On the other hand, Cracker Barrel and Uno Chicago Grill, the study concluded, need some improvements in this area as the site does not offer any good color and text combinations and original components. While, The Pasta House does not offer any unified feel as the look of the site changes from page to page.

Ease of navigation
Navigation is maybe the most important component of a website that directly affects the quality of the visitor experience. In today's competitive Internet environment, bad navigation can be a turn off for many visitors.

Navigational toolbars should work correctly and be consistent throughout the website. Navigation is so important that many sites include two levels of toolbars: 1) top level, which does not change from page to page; and 2) second level, which changes based on the contents of the
web page.

The study found that Uno Chicago Grill definitely needs some improvement in this criterion as the toolbar is not consistent in child level pages of the website. The Pasta House was probably the worst example in this criterion as the site does not offer navigational toolbars in each sub-page.
Some of the best practices in this area are: Cousins Subs with their unified two navigational toolbar and Starbucks with its Java self expandable and two level navigation tool.

The study also took into account if the website offered a search facility within the website. Cousins Subs, Eat'n Park, Starbucks, Benihana, Cracker Barrel are the only restaurant sites that had a search facility. None of the other restaurants gave visitors a chance to search a keyword in their website.

Ease of contact
It seems like common sense that a website would provide company contact information, yet you would be surprised how many websites do not. We checked if these websites clearly provided a direct e-mail contact, a mailing address, a telephone number, a fax number, and a way to report errors to the webmaster. For these criteria only Cousins Subs provided all of the possible contact points. A primary reason why visitors visit a restaurant website is to contact the restaurant chain, therefore, the contact information should be made readily available to the visitor. More common are sites like Manchu Wok, where the telephone number for the company was hidden under three levels and the corporate headquarters address could not be located.

The study found that Carrabba's Italian Grill was one of the worst examples of this criterion. It was almost impossible to find a single address or phone number from this website.

Marketing effectiveness
The study looked at marketing effectiveness in six ways:
- Globalization (multi-lingual capabilities)
- Customer service
- Guest interaction
- Marketing tools
- Partnerships and investors
- Market positioning

In addition, the study sent an email query (for some of the websites, we used web forms since they did not provide any email addresses) asking if they were public company and if they were how we could access their annual report for 2004. The same email message was sent to all restaurant companies on the same day. All automated and personalized responses were kept track.

We received automated responses from six restaurants Uno Chicago Grill, Eat'n Park, Starbucks, Cracker Barrel, Happy Joe's, and Souper Salad. In terms of personalized response, Starbucks, Benihana, Perkins Restaurants, Houston's, Carrabba's Italian Grill, and Souper Salad responded within the first 24 hours, while Coco's Bakery Restaurants responded six days later. All others did not respond at all.

Legal compliance
In this final section of the evaluation, we checked to see if the restaurant website had copyright disclaimers, a trademark prominently displayed, site usage terms, a privacy policy statement, and U.S. Section 508 guidelines (website compliance for people with disabilities).
Disappointingly, none of the websites in this year's study met all the criteria for legal compliance. Although, only mandatory for U.S. federal websites, restaurants should strive make websites compliant with U.S. Section 508 so that anyone can view and hear the website.

The bottom line
Taking all these considerations together, the study shows that restaurant websites have once again made only marginal improvements. Last year's highest ranking site, Starbucks had 250, this year, while Starbucks is the still the highest point getter, it only garnered 234 points. Followed by Cousins Subs, Eat-n-Park, and Coco's Bakery. As e-commerce expands, restaurant websites must move to take advantage more aggressively. However, we understand that a bad restaurant website will not only hurt the image as well as the actual business. Therefore, every restaurant should invest appropriately on the design and maybe more importantly on the maintenance of their websites.

Cihan Cobanoglu, PhD. Is an assistant professor at the University of Delaware and the author of the 2003 and 2004 studies. Pelin Dede is a graduate student at the University of Delaware.