Phoning It In

June 19, 2020

Mobile apps offer benefits for operators and their customers.

One of the keys to the future of the foodservice industry’s post-COVID-19 recovery may be in customers’ hands through food delivery and online ordering apps.

Mobile apps have proliferated throughout the industry in recent years as Starbucks, Panera Bread and other foodservice companies have invested heavily in phone-based ordering and payment technologies. But the pandemic has elevated and showcased these apps’ potential to facilitate contactless ordering and payment, which benefits both consumers and operators. “In a COVID-19 world, consumers have a ready-made incentive to download that restaurant’s app,” says Richard Crone, CEO of Crone Consulting.

Food delivery and online ordering apps have proved to be a valuable asset for operators who transitioned in mid-March to a business model that, for a time, focused exclusively on takeout and delivery. Dine-in service has now resumed in many states, but the experience is likely forever changed by the pandemic experience. Among many benefits, apps allow operators to message customers directly with information about their current offerings and to attract new customers with the promise of easy ordering and contactless payment.

Restaurant chains such as Burger King have promoted their apps heavily during the pandemic as part of an overall message touting the safety of using the chain’s drive-thrus and the benefits of delivery. Its “Stay Home of the Whopper” campaign, launched in early April, encouraged consumers to be heroes by obeying stay-at-home orders and ordering delivery through the app.

Food App Use Soars

According to a recent survey by location-based marketing services firm Bluedot, 51% of consumers have downloaded at least one new app to purchase food and essentials during the crisis. The survey also found that app use has risen significantly overall—particularly among younger consumers—and that many consumers reported downloading more apps during the crisis to reduce their interaction with on-site staff.

App-based and online ordering functionalities “have gone from being a ‘nice-to-have’ to a matter of life and death,” explains Sashika Dias, co-founder of Incentivio, a supplier of white-label digital technologies to restaurant companies. “There has been a huge spike in demand.”

Many restaurants have found that having their own mobile app can facilitate in-house delivery; some even consider it preferable to working with third parties. “If a restaurant—even a small one—doesn’t have its own app, it needs to get one quickly,” Crone says. The technology will help a restaurant “prosper during the crisis, but more importantly, once it’s over,” he adds.

Food Apps for All Segments

While quick service and fast casual chains have led the charge toward mobile app deployment, higher-end operators also might benefit from having their own apps going forward, says Heidi Liebenguth, managing partner and research director at Crone Consulting.

An app gives customers the opportunity “to reserve their table, which they will want to do since there will be fewer tables available,” she explains. It also allows them “to look over the menu and order their food in advance—even before they arrive.”

Such functionality eliminates the potential spread of contaminants on menus and the need to clean them after each use. It also helps to minimize interaction with servers and simplifies the checkout process, which can be done from the table before customers have even finished their meal, Liebenguth adds.

Incentivizing Downloads

The pandemic made it prudent for operators to promote the benefits of contactless ordering and payment. But Judy Chan, vice president of marketing at Bluedot, advises operators to consider their overarching goals when promoting app adoption. “Restaurant operators should match their messaging to what the app is designed to do,” she says.

If the goal of the app is to build the restaurant’s loyalty program, for example, operators could create special promotions or rewards in exchange for downloading the app, Chan continues. Or, if the goal is to provide customers with a vehicle for mobile ordering, the promotion could tout reduced wait times at the restaurant or access to exclusive menus available only to app users.

“A great way to encourage downloads is to incentivize customers to download while at your store,” she says. If the location services setting is active, “operators can understand which store the customer is visiting and use that to validate the incentive—a free drink, for instance—in the app.”

Dias says nearly all of Incentivio’s restaurant companies use sign-up offers to encourage downloads. Offering a reward that’s tied to their first order—such as $2 off a $10 purchase—is ideal because it ties the reward to actually using the app.

“That’s the key,” he explains. “Not only have you gotten them to download the app and sign up, but you've also trained them to make that first order.”

Chan suggests introducing gamification to the experience by positioning snacks or desserts as rewards. This not only encourages repeat behavior, it also fosters social interaction among customers competing for certain prizes. Imagine earning “a badge for being the soft-serve king or queen,” for example, she says.

Apps also can be used to encourage users to add treats to their orders. For example, an app can show a pop-up toward the end of the order that reminds consumers to add snack or dessert items. “Or, better yet, show customers the most popular item on the menu for a ‘one-click add,’” Chan adds. “The idea is to think about the customer order journey and create a digital experience that’s similar to the physical ask, ‘Do you want fries with that?’”

Making a Connection

The pandemic has created an opportunity for restaurants to connect with their customers in ways they never have before. Crone encourages operators to think in terms of a “check-in” strategy for their customers, as opposed to a “check-out” strategy. “In this environment, you really need to know who the customer is, where the customer is, what they want and how to serve them before they get there,” he says. “And once they get there, you need to be able to identify them.”

This creates opportunities for personalized services including food and delivery apps, and an enhanced customer experience that can help brands succeed, now and in the long term. “The branded app is the new connecting point and platform for personalization,” Crone concludes.

Find a deep library of resources to help you navigate the current environment on the Mondelēz International Foodservice website.

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