The “Models” of change
Returning to an earlier point, COVID was always kindling to trends more than a bringer of change. Headed into 2020, off-premises sales increased nearly four times faster than dine-in business, accounting for roughly 80 percent of restaurants’ U.S. dollar sales growth over the previous three years, according to Rabobank. From pandemic forward, the percentage of mix has slid as dine-in returned, but dollar levels remain, for the most part, elevated over pre-virus numbers.
There are a few dynamics at work. Consumers became comfortable with off-premises options given the extended trials during lockdowns. But also, the platforms and capabilities powering the omnichannel became more sophisticated. Delivery platforms grew. Relationships evolved. Brands from Texas Roadhouse (pay-at-the-table tech) to Another Broken Egg (handheld tablets) to Outback (same as the last) are past the implementation stage and into optimization.
As seen through the pandemic era, restaurants catered to growth outside the four walls through smaller dining rooms, dedicated shelves for pickup, separate service lines for order-ahead, and models like to-go-only prototypes and pickup windows without orderboards.
Deloitte circles back to an initial pillar—frictionless digital experience. The company found, generally, guests prefer to order through a restaurant’s direct channels. In 2023, 40 percent of consumers opted to order direct from the restaurant’s website versus 13 percent who expressed preference for third-party apps or websites. Most respondents (87 percent) also noted they feel a delivery fee of $5 or less is “fair.” Therefore, Deloitte said, to protect digital sales, restaurants should work to make their direct-order channels, including delivery fees, equal to or less expensive than third-party options.
“Another strategy to keep in mind is the continued adoption of digital leading practices across industries,” the company said. “Customers expect the latest digital practices to be adopted across their buying experiences, so restaurants could be wise to look to other industries such as airlines and hotels for inspiration.”
Order confirmation boards are a good example of this in real time, as are screens inside restaurants that display to-go queues. In this past year’s QSR Drive-Thru Report, order accuracy was especially vital to Gen X, with 71 percent getting “angry” when their order was inaccurate. Seventy-three percent said order confirmation screens were “somewhat” or “most important” to their drive-thru visit. A menuboard placed ahead of the ordering speaker (so there was time to review prior to order) was also high at 78 percent. According to Intouch Insight data (QSR’s partner in the Drive-Thru Report), OCBs accounted for a 2 percent increase in order accuracy, and when paired with a verbal confirmation by the employee that the OCB was correct, the study showed an even higher increase—7.5 percent.
The straightforward point is today’s consumer is used to instant gratification in their retail behavior (Amazon) and appreciate the same with food procurement. At the least, consumers expect visual accuracy with ordering that involves a screen, either mobile or at the drive-thru.
Increased usage generally lifts expectations and resets the tradeoff. You can insert that line across myriad COVID developments. The drive-thru is a clear one and so is delivery/takeout. Sixty percent of consumers in Deloitte’s study said they were unlikely to accept lesser quality when ordering takeout food. When service issues do arise, 55 percent said they still prefer to use the phone to address complaints. However, user preference for mobile chat and text increased from 20 percent in 2021 to 27 percent in 2023, while phone bias slid from 63 to 55 percent. Centralizing service recovery, Deloitte said, could deliver cost savings and provide an opportunity to streamline customer experience.
The company added restaurants have the chance to achieve this through centralized support teams that offer multiple communication channels, including mobile chat and text. “While this requires an investment, it could allow restaurants to operate with leaner staffs and meet channel expectations, which are currently being set by third-party apps,” the company said.
On the ever-morphing topic of ghost kitchens, Deloitte’s study discovered 52 percent of consumers would order from one, while 24 percent were indifferent on the subject. That’s essentially on par with 2021 findings. Deloitte said the shift to ghost kitchens would be a longer-term evolution for most. That or they settle into a relationship where restaurants use them to seed demand for future brick-and-mortar growth (read how Dog Haus is doing this). Virtual brands operate out of existing restaurant kitchens of the operator, host locations, or in ghost spaces that are increasingly moving toward more prime real estate than the early days, when they targeted dirt on market boundaries. Their purpose today ranges from relief valve for nearby units to new-concept development to somewhere in the gray middle. Time will shake it out.