There are several trends sweeping today’s dining industry—from keto options to secret menu items to sustainable practices. No matter how long these trends shape the restaurant world, one development is certainly here to stay: the impact of mobile devices.

Smartphones have emerged as foodies’ favorite dining companions, with patrons turning to mobile for all their needs. Delivery as a whole is expected to generate $365 billion by 2035, and 56 percent of consumers aged 21 to 38 reported placing a delivery or takeout order using a restaurant app or website in the last year. For quick service restaurants, mobile ordering is expected to drive 10.7 percent of sales this year.

In the face of the novel coronavirus, mobile capabilities are more important now than ever. With delivery and pick-up as the only dining options in most states, restaurants and customers have grown more reliant on effective, well-designed apps to identify locations, track orders, and time contact-free handoffs.

Most of these functionalities wouldn’t be possible without accurate location data. Whether a customer is ordering delivery or pick-up, searching for a new spot, or using an app for coupons and promotions, location capabilities are critical for enabling the best mobile experiences. Further, location helps restaurants improve their delivery analytics, create more effective marketing campaigns, better understand customer loyalty, improve customer engagement, and save on operational and delivery costs.

Location Already Making An Impact

Many quick service restaurants are already using location data within their mobile apps to reshape how we think about ordering, delivery, tracking, and promotions.

Store Location

Consumers can trust a specific brand’s app to pinpoint the closest store and share additional options within a specific radius. Starbucks is even using location data to avoid competition among its own stores, a smart business move that fosters loyalty for specific store locations.

Geofencing for campaigns and promotions:

Additionally, many restaurants use geofencing to uplevel campaigns, most commonly in the form of push notifications sent to a patron’s phone when they’re near a certain location. These messages can include promotions designed to increase engagement and spend, and even attract customers away from competitors. Burger King utilized this technology in their Whopper Detour campaign. When Burger King’s app detected a user was in or near a McDonald’s location, it pushed a coupon for a 1-cent Whopper.

Order tracking

In our on-demand economy, consumers have grown accustomed to real-time updates, and that applies to their food orders. Domino’s made a huge splash when it launched the first iteration of its pizza tracker in 2008, and last winter the brand added enhanced GPS capabilities to improve order tracking and in-store logistics. Since then, more restaurants and delivery services have experimented with tracking capabilities. Papa John’s launched its own pizza tracker in 2017, Chipotle recently announced a new delivery tracker, and UberEats customers can follow along as their drivers navigate around town.

These applications are especially critical in an age of social distancing, where increased demand underscores the need for accurate delivery communications. Many wait times have surged from an average of 45 minutes to two hours, and customers need visibility into when their order will arrive. Mobile apps also allow for safer, contactless delivery options, such as leaving the order at a customer’s doorstep or placing it in a cubby for in-store pick up. Accurate location information is essential for properly timing these efforts.

The Future of Location-Based App Experiences

As location data tracking and geofencing become more sophisticated, restaurants will continue to improve how their apps function and bring new experiences to their customers. In the next few years, we’ll see enhanced location detection, which will enable more personalized offers, better differentiation across regions, and vastly improved order-ahead and queuing functions to streamline operations.

Foreground geofencing for location-based app experiences

Foreground geofencing allows an app to detect location and adapt its contents to personalize experiences. The function is already taking shape, but will become more sophisticated in the coming years.

For instance, a mobile device will be able to detect when a customer travels to a new city, state, or country. With this data, a restaurant app can generate region-specific menus that show relevant options rather than what’s available within the user’s typical commute patterns. The app can also identify when you enter a restaurant, and automatically trigger a payment QR code to appear. Given the importance of social distancing today, contactless payments like mobile wallets and QR codes are critical in minimizing the physical handoff that occurs with cash and credit cards.

Real time offers

Quick service restaurants will also be able to use location technology to create personalized, in-the-moment offers. An app may be able to tell when a user is frequenting a competitor, and push an offer to entice them back to the restaurant. Or it might detect when the user is commuting or traveling, and promote a discounted rate for visiting a new location. Right now, location data is being used to notify customers about which of their favorite restaurants are offering pick-up or delivery options as they navigate through the coronavirus crisis.

Optimization for ordering ahead

Looking even further ahead, we can expect apps to sequence order tickets in-store based on when a customer places a mobile order, where they are, and how long it will take them to arrive at the location. That way, dining establishments can prioritize fulfilling orders for customers that are closer instead of which order was placed first. This will help restaurants sequence their orders more efficiently, reduce wait times, and prevent orders from sitting out. Establishments like McDonald’s are already experimenting with real-time location as input for order ahead and moving away from a first-in-first-out, or FIFO, model.

Why Now?

Smart devices are growing in importance to consumers’ dining habits, especially as they pursue a sense of normalcy during social distancing with increased delivery and takeout. Restaurants with strong mobile apps are well-equipped to keep delivering their products efficiently and effectively. The quality of a restaurant’s app can have a huge impact on their sales and engagement — and location is the key to unlocking the true potential of a restaurant’s mobile capabilities.

Coby Berman is the co-founder and COO at Radar. He was previously the Director of Sales at mParticle and an Account Executive at Foursquare. He has a BA from Hamilton College.

Outside Insights, Story, Technology