What’s clear is that an already accelerating movement has become all but universal for restaurants. The lockdown exacerbated convenience; it didn’t surface it. As Datassential notes, “at their core, most problems consumers identified [during COVID-19] weren’t stemming from new needs.”
Although people might be sheltering in place, to say they’re not as busy would be misguided. COVID-19 complicated a lot of families’ work lives—it isn’t as easy to separate home and state. Full-time family care being one example.
Given this change, many creative solutions borne out of the pandemic could serve customers’ needs long-term, Datassential said. COVID-19 tactics have the potential to become evergreen.
From a survey of 1,000 consumers, the company shared some findings into what those lasting changes might look like. And where many diners stand today, as news and progress remains dynamic.
Starting with good news
In the week ending August 16, according to The NPD Group, customer transaction declines at major restaurant chains improved into the single-digits after 21 weeks of double-digit drops. Customer transactions fell 9 percent compared to year-ago levels—a full 35 points better than the steepest plummet of negative 44 percent in the week ending April 12.
Quick-service brands—which represent the bulk of industry transactions—outpaced the pack. They slipped 8 percent, year-over-year. Full-service chains reported declines of 19 percent compared to last year. And as alarming as that this, it’s a 57-point gain from April 12’s crater of negative 76 percent.
Datassential sees this unfolding on the anecdotal level, too. While off-premises meals remain the majority of business, there’s been a significant uptick across the board as restaurants reopen.
“Have you done any of the following since pandemic restrictions have been in place?
Got restaurant food from a drive-thru
- August 14: 72 percent
- May 19: 59 percent
- Change: 13 percent
Got takeout from a restaurant (went inside the restaurant)
- August 14: 62 percent
- May 19: 46 percent
- Change: 16 percent
Got curbside/walkup takeout (didn't go inside the restaurant)
- August 14: 57 percent
- May 19: 50 percent
- Change: 7 percent
Got restaurant food for delivery
- August 14: 52 percent
- May 19: 37 percent
- Change: 15 percent
Dined inside at the restaurant itself
- August 14: 41 percent
- May 19: 17 percent
- Change: 23 percent
Got non-alcoholic beverages for delivery
- August 14: 35 percent
Dined outside at the restaurant itself:
- August 14: 34 percent
Got adult beverages for delivery
- August 14: 32 percent
- May 19: 17 percent
- Change: 15 percent
The number that leaps out is “dined inside at the restaurant itself.” You would expect that hike as more venues open up, at more capacity. Outdoor seating proved most popular among Gen Z and millennials, Datassential said.
Concerning regulations and indoor dining plans (or lack thereof), there is plenty of mystery. But what’s evident is people will find restaurants, one way or the other, if they can. It supports the omnichannel strategy countless brands are investing in. There are outlets to deliver food to consumers in a COVID-19 world. It just isn’t as easy to direct them one place or another, making it critical to open up channels. Let the guest pick how they want to access your brand.
Some will rush back into dining rooms. Others might stick to drive thru for months to come. And that might be due to safety concerns, or it might be a byproduct of convenience and customers growing comfortable with new choices (like curbside) that have reigned during coronavirus. A lot of guests that put stock in convenience and leaned on lockdown features, such as apps and contactless ordering and pickup, might never fully go back.
Interest in new tactics raised the bar. Six months into COVID-19, the novelty factor faded to some extent, and competition ramped up. Offering a meal kit isn’t the offbeat, fresh idea it was in early March. As explored in this earlier piece, the drive-thru landscape is about to get a lot more crowded.
“Whether it’s extra work required with kits and take-and bakes, or the possibility for error when mixing your own cocktails, for more than half of consumers, these downsides can limit appeal,” Datassential said.
Price-related concerns are causing some unease. Two-thirds said they see restaurant grocery offerings as too expensive (like selling toilet paper and milk along with sandwiches), and nearly half consider casual takeout meals from fine-dining establishments overpriced.
Like all COVID-19 headlines, this is evolving. People are measuring one option against another, and questioning how price and other value metrics stack up. Previously, convenience and value represented a straightforward tradeoff (pay more for delivery, don’t leave the house). But there are hordes of restaurants offering delivery and takeout in the pandemic arena (to Brizo FoodMetrics’ data), and doing so effectively, efficiently, and with value tied in. The industry is far enough along the COVID-19 journey, and enough dining rooms have reopened, for guests to be more selective.
“Please rate the following statements about new items/services offered due to the pandemic, true or false.”
- I don’t want groceries from restaurants; it’s too expensive: 65 percent
- I don't want cocktail kits from restaurants; I don’t want to do the work: 62 percent
- I don't want cocktail kits from restaurants; there is too much room for error: 59 percent
- I don't want casual takeout meals from upscale restaurants; those are overpriced: 58 percent
- I don't want meal kits from restaurants; it defeats the purpose if I have to cook it myself: 57 percent
Those above measures were all higher among Boomers at 81, 75, 75, 72, and 74 percent, respectively.
- I don't want take-and-bake meals; it's a pain: 53 percent
- I don't want take-and-bake meals; it defeats the purpose if I have to heat it myself: 52 percent
- I don't want casual take-out meals from upscale restaurants; they should stick to upscale food: 51 percent
- I don't like when restaurants do "contactless" menus by making me look online: 43 percent
All of these results don’t necessarily suggest abandoning course. Instead, they prove opportunity remains in execution, from introduction to evolution. It boils down to understanding core customers, and now might be a great time to poll them for feedback. Consumers understand these are strange times. Ask them what’s working and what isn’t, and how the restaurant can improve.
The one-to-one engagement portal has widened. People like being heard and knowing their opinion matters. And compared to the comment cards of old, operators can get a lot more specific than they used to. Zero in on the added revenue streams and channels that matter most, and find out where the gaps are.
Here’s some feedback from customers in Datassential’s study:
“The menus have been very limited. I am trying to support all of our local diners, but they have limited their menus for takeout. I understand the reasons, but it is still annoying.”
Trimming menus in favor of better execution has become a COVID-19 staple, especially when it comes to working with smaller staffs and trying to improve on efficiency points, like speed of service in the drive thru.
As staffing levels rise and some dine-in returns, it might make sense for certain brands to start adding a weekly rotating feature. Something to keep frequent guests engaged and expecting something fresh. Plus, it allows for consistent new news to piggyback other updates, like increased capacity plans or added safety measures. It depends on what defined the concept before.
“Some entrees are overpriced for a takeout meal whose quality is not that great because it doesn’t travel well.”
The value perception is changing.
“I don’t like restaurants that don’t have eco-friendly packaging.”
A topic, perhaps, that doesn’t get talked about enough. For brands pushing sustainability pre-virus, off-premises packaging is a necessary extension to consider.