The sudden arrival of COVID-19 brought massive changes around the globe almost overnight. Entire industries were forced to instantly adapt to government regulations that put a stranglehold on businesses large and small, with hardly any industry spared. Restaurant brands faced an entirely unique set of challenges. Customers may have been stuck at home but they were more than willing to wait in the drive-thru lane for a chicken sandwich. Many brands were not prepared for this sudden surge in demand for off-premises dining, digital ordering, contactless service, and curbside pickup solutions that emerged at the start of the pandemic. 

But many did rise to the occasion and adjusted quickly to the new needs of customers, though often with ad-libbed solutions that provided only enough to get by. And while consumers were willing to forgive some lapses in service and execution at first, customer habits have changed forever. Now consumers expect experiences to be frictionless and more convenient, no matter where or how they order, where they eat, or where and how they pick up their food – regardless of an ever-changing pandemic environment. 

A new era of COVID

As hopeful as we are for a recovery from COVID-19, variants like Omicron prove that brands can’t go back to the pre-COVID normal and assume off-premises consumption won’t persist. To survive potentially disruptive variants and to serve an ever-changing environment, digital solutions must be fluid with the ability to scale up and back as needed. In fact, adapting to this “new normal” means brands must hedge their bets against any and all shifting operational, social, and environmental factors. With threats of travel bans, lockdowns and more lurking, brands need to be prepared with a flexible, dynamic strategy of multiple technology solutions that allow them to execute across every delivery channel.

What to consider 

It’s possible to build a future-proof tech stack that allows for pandemic-era changes as well as the pressures of a continued labor shortage, supply chain issues, and ingredient cost inflation. A successful stack that optimizes the on-premise and off-premises experiences, builds loyalty, retains market share, and wins new customers will prove victorious. Key considerations must include a strong mobile strategy with location capabilities that facilitate fulfillment, automation, and self-service. Some solutions to consider include:

Mobile presence

While online ordering via web has cemented itself with many operators, mobile apps provide huge upside to increase customer mindshare, engagement, loyalty and most importantly, revenue. Operators should take steps to ensure consumers can quickly and easily browse a menu and order using a mobile device that allows for pay and pickup. According to Bluedot’s most recent State of What Feeds Us report, more than one-third (35 percent) of consumers placed more orders on restaurant apps in October than they did in the previous three months. It has also become the platform where consumers spend the most money per visit, surpassing even the drive-thru.

Equally critical, mobile also provides a vital pathway to loyalty programs which enable brands to increase engagement, boost the customer experience, and raise the lifetime value of their customers. More than two-thirds (69 percent) of consumers said loyalty programs incentivize them to revisit a store or restaurant more frequently, and they agreed that loyalty programs help operators provide a better service. There’s a growing trend of quick-service restaurants that offer digital reward programs including McDonald’s and Burger King as well as Taco Bell with their new taco subscription program.

Location technology for operations and communications

There’s mounting pressure on brands to get the arrival experience right,  especially as off-premises ordering continues to soar. In August 2021, off-premises ordering increased by 128 percent compared to August 2019 per The NPD Group. But consumers are growing increasingly more frustrated when picking up mobile orders. According to the latest State of What Feeds Us report, top frustrations include finding that their order isn’t ready and having to wait (46 percent), and being told their food is ready but still having to wait upon arrival (44 percent). 

This cauldron of frustration can be addressed by leaning on mobile location technology to reduce friction and deliver on the rising demand for speed and convenience throughout the customer journey. A marquee location technology solution delivers high accuracy which provides stores the ability to know when customers are on their way and when they have arrived, adding tremendous efficiency to the workflow process while reducing customer wait time dramatically. At a minimum, communicating with customers upon arrival sets proper expectations (whether order is ready or delayed) and can provide customers with timely instructions for pickup. No customer wants a lukewarm burger or melted drink, so a well-timed solution means happy customers, ultimately translating to repeat business.  

Automation and self-service

The labor market is tighter than ever before as operators struggle to hire and retain workers, making it even harder to maintain the level of service needed to support off-premises strategies. To contend with the staffing shortage, brands are increasingly turning to automation to provide efficiencies to both the front and back of the house. Thankfully, consumers are receptive to self-service options. Forty-three percent of consumers prefer using their mobile phone when placing orders while 17 percent prefer using either their mobile phone or kiosk. Just 18 percent prefer speaking with a staff member.

Initially used for safety precautions at the beginning of the pandemic, numerous brands have replaced physical menus with QR codes which significantly help short-staffed restaurants. Some brands like McDonald’s have implemented self-serve ordering kiosks so customers can place orders without having to speak to staff. At fast casual restaurants, brands such as Cracker Barrel and Dave & Buster’s are turning to technology to allow for contactless ordering and paying, allowing staff to serve more customers at one time. 

The tech stack should be looked at as a series of on and off switches. Operators should find solutions that can help them weather uncertainties. The ability to dial-up or dial-down a solution provides a brand with much needed flexibility, all the while their competitors will continue to struggle. The restaurant industry will continue to face an array of uncertainty and pressures around additional pandemic waves and restrictions in addition to staffing and ingredient shortages and inflation. But the brands that hedge their bets with a future-proof technology stack will be at the clear advantage to build brand loyalty and gain market share. 

Judy Chan leads marketing for Bluedot. Bluedot’s location technology for mobile apps powers interactions between brands and their customers. Prior to joining Bluedot, Judy managed emerging mobile solutions at Airship. Recognized as a 40 Under 40 Brand Marketer by Brand Innovators, Judy has worked with brands such as Starbucks, The Body Shop, Politico, and Sprint to deliver innovative mobile-first marketing initiatives. Judy led product marketing for HP’s online laptop business, where she helped achieve Top 20 on the Internet Retailer 500 list. In addition, Judy has launched product partnerships with Dolby, Beats By Dr. Dre, and MTV. 

Outside Insights, Story, Technology