Thanks to Starbucks, McDonald’s, Panera, and other pacesetters, consumers are getting the hang of digitally ordering ahead—and they’re flocking to the convenience of it.

That seemingly simple act—purchasing food or coffee on the fly and arriving to have it ready and waiting—is a massive change in consumer behavior, and there’s a lot at stake for fast-casual restaurants to get the experience right.

Mobile ordering will be a $38 billion industry by 2020—up from $4 billion in 2015, according to Business Insider. It will account for 10.7 percent of quick-service restaurant industry sales, from just 1.5 percent two years ago. What happens next in terms of optimizing the customer experience will have a tremendous impact on accelerating the pace of that growth. Executed well, we might soon arrive at time when there won’t even be a “line” to skip.

For now, we’re still early days when it comes to optimizing the experience. As major chains jockey to arrive at the right formula for success, there are few established standards or best practices in place.

What is undeniable is the pace at which physical and digital experiences are coming together. With that in mind, following are four key areas to consider to make ordering ahead simple and convenient:

Keep Hot Items Hot and Cold Items Cold

There’s still too much guesswork for consumers when it comes to ordering ahead—will their coffee be hot when they arrive at the café, will the milkshake be runny? In most restaurants today, the minute you place an order on your mobile device at a food or beverage place it gets put into a queue for preparation. In some highly caffeinated communities I know, people time their coffee order to when they’re within a five-minute drive from their favorite pickup place so it will still be hot when they arrive—in essence timing their pickup so that the item quality is ideal. Pizza, burritos—you name it—the quality of the food declines once prep is complete and sitting waiting for the customer. Panera, for example, is addressing the issue by enabling customers to pick up mobile orders at the time of their own choosing. But more accuracy in timing food preparation is essential in getting the experience right.

Optimize the Check-in Experience

One important way to address food freshness is by understanding how close the customer is to your physical location. As major fast food chains focus on reimagining pick-up in an era when “mobile” means “phone,” expect to see major innovations both in drive-thru and inside the restaurant. Now, food prep typically begins once a customer arrives at the restaurant and checks in on the app—slowing down the order-ahead pickup. These first iterations only slightly improve upon the classic drive-thru and walk-in experiences. Ultimately, we’ll get to something more seamless—the restaurant will be able to anticipate your arrival time and prepare your order accordingly—so it’s ready the moment you arrive. 

Figure It Out for In-Store Customers

It’s not a great experience for anyone waiting in a traditional line to see someone who has ordered ahead walk in, skip the line and grab their food. Starbucks, with several years under its belt in mobile order-ahead, is adding designated pickup areas for mobile orders. Panera and smaller regional chains set aside shelves specifically for order-ahead customers. McDonald’s is experimenting with in-store self-order kiosks and table service to speed things up for walk-in patrons. Finding the balance of solving for the future vs. the present will be paramount as the order-ahead trend intensifies.

Making It Easy to Repeat

The order-ahead experience should be fast and easy. Focusing on app design in service of that means minimizing the number of taps required to get in, get out—and get what you want. A well-designed app should know if you order the same burrito every time so you can order in seconds with minimal taps or swipes. App engagement—for loyalty programs and specialty menu items—is important but secondary when it comes to prioritizing for ordering. To get your customers into the order-ahead habit, it has to be easy. Less is more. Faster is better.

In some ways, ordering ahead for food via a digital experience is not new. Restaurants have had such capabilities for a decade or more on websites, and pizza chains pioneered mobile ordering. But over the next several years, consumers will be “skipping the line” in droves and quickly adopting an array of new tools and features that will cater to their demands for quick convenience and personalization.

And once they develop the habit of ordering what they want, when they want it, the idea of grabbing good food on the go will be forever changed.

Sean Moran is Curbside’s chief revenue officer. He has focused on digital transformation in the retail industry for more than 25 years.
Ordering, Outside Insights, Story