COVID and Digital Ordering: What Have We Learned?

    The only barrier for customers is trying it.

    A person holds a black phone.
    Unsplash/ROBIN WORRALL
    Things changed in the wake of coronavirus, and quick-serves around the country were forced to respond.

    For quick-service restaurants around the country, the reality of business after coronavirus is becoming clear. More than eight million restaurant employees have been laid off or furloughed in recent months, and the broader restaurant industry has lost more than $80 billion in sales as of the end of April, a number assured to grow with figures from May and June. The challenges facing restaurants from fast food to fine dining, and everywhere in between, are simply unprecedented.

    Yet, there is hope: restaurants—and particularly quick-serve brands—have learned and adapted on the fly to today’s business model. Here are a few key ideas that restaurant brands can take away from the COVID-19 crisis:

    The only barrier to going digital is trying it

    Before coronavirus, the restaurant world was slower than many other industries on the uptake of digital ordering adoption, perhaps out of fear, or out of a desire to maintain established ways of operating. Then the pandemic struck, and brands had to expedite adoption of programs and fold digital into the sales mix as a critical element, rather than small addition it had been. Restaurants had to adopt digital tools to stay alive, and consumers responded in a big way. We’ll certainly see some amount of the digital high ground staked out in the COVID-19 pandemic will be held long after the customers safely return to in-person dining.

    People respond to easy

    The restaurants that have made it simple to order will retain those customers digitally going forward. Standalone apps and online ordering platforms are for showcasing what’s available, or facilitate easy group orders, or upsell a simplified meal for a family of four.

    For the families spending their restaurant dollars, easy ordering and reordering creates return appeal. Customization builds loyalty. Consistency builds trust. Consumers respond positively to the added control that digital ordering represents for them, and the ease of use and reuse. For brands that want to attract and retain customers, the digital brand experience is paramount today.

    People want choice

    Some customers like to place their orders directly on restaurant websites or apps, while others seek out new restaurants to visit from third party aggregators. Some want to pick up their orders in store, others want delivery, and many still prefer contactless ordering and delivery methods. These customers are all looking for the same thing: flexibility, options that fit the moment, and restaurant providers who can handle order pick up and deliver from wherever the order is placed with ease.

    When times get tough, people get thrifty

    Consumers are now very cognizant of the money they are spending on food. They are coming to understand that when they want to order takeout, the costs are higher through third party aggregators, where delivery and order-processing fees may leave your guests feeling frustrated. In cases where these platforms are the only mechanism by which to digitally order, a restaurant may be losing potential business from consumers looking to save on fees.

    As restaurants reopen, consumers will likely continue to seek delivery or pickup options more frequently than before, so restaurants are going to have to figure out how to support these orders more cost effectively in a lasting capacity, such as with brand apps and self-managed online ordering systems that appeal to the guest who is already aware of the brand and has a desire to order. Above all else, guests want transparency in pricing; they are willing to pay for delivery services and convenience, but only when they understand those costs and feel they are justified.

    National brands can produce local heroes

    As the pandemic caused communities to turn inward, and seek ways to support struggling local businesses, national franchises have appeared faceless and well-funded in contrast to mom and pop establishments.

    Yet, franchise operators faced the same struggles as every other restaurant in the community. It became imperative that the operators of larger and more visible brands connect with their own community, to communicate their own localness, and important that franchise locations immerse themselves in the needs of the neighborhood. This meant communicating locally, in email campaigns, and on social media. As cities reopen, it’s important that franchise operators continue to lean into their localness and take part in the rebuilding of neighborhoods and economies.

    Things changed in the wake of coronavirus, and quick-serves around the country were forced to respond. Today, they are changing again. As our communities slowly resume onsite dining with limited seating, we must remember that many of the changes from the last three months are worth keeping, especially if we find ourselves in a second wave. Coronavirus showcases that flexibility is a trait worth striving toward. The winners are not the strongest, or the biggest. They are the most adaptable.

    Hope Neiman is the Chief Marketing Officer of Tillster, a leading global player in the burgeoning restaurant technology space. Hope and her team drive outcomes by combining data and technology to expand sales and increase consumer engagement in a measurable way. Through Hope’s marketing expertise and brand vision, Tillster grew from a kiosk company into a best-in-class, metric rich engagement and ordering solutions provider for multi-unit national and international restaurant brands. The Tillster platform provides visibility and impact on millions of transactions daily, around the world, for more than 50 of the world’s largest quick-service, fast casual, and casual dining brands.