How operators can improve sales and guest loyalty by focusing on design.

Sponsored by Mood Media.

From the moment guests walk in the door, the atmosphere of a restaurant influences how they feel. One important element that some operators overlook is the visual experience. Everything from signage, wall colors, and art down to the salt and pepper shakers and napkin dispensers is important to the way guests perceive your brand and can be a deciding factor in whether or not they return.

“The visual experience is a really a major component of the overall customer experience,” says Tom Cook, the principal of King-Casey, a restaurant consulting, branding, and design firm. “It can have a huge neutral, positive, or a negative impact.”

With competition growing in quick service and fast casual, consumers have more choices than ever and are becoming more discerning about every element of the restaurant experience. Offering them a top-level visual experience can mean the difference between increasing sales and struggling to make ends meet.

“Everyone is being challenged to step up their game to create an atmosphere that is more personal, engaging, and consistent across the board,” says Brian Elles, director of product marketing of visual solutions for Mood Media. “By default, hyper-connected consumers have become hyper-sensitive to all components that contribute to the total customer experience. Missteps are magnified, so everyone has to step up their games.”

But designing an engaging visual experience is about more than decor. Because consumers are constantly tied to technology, they also want their restaurants to interact with them through digital elements.

“When dining in a quick-service environment, consumers now expect a more digital atmosphere that shows that the brand or store is up-to-date with the times,” Elles says. “As brands are adopting digital menuboards, we’re seeing more and more brands carry that visual experience into the dining rooms.”

But this doesn’t mean that operators should add technology solutions everywhere in the restaurant for the sake of it. Though including more technology in a restaurant can offer huge business benefits, what you do with it is extremely important because using the wrong technology solutions in the wrong places can actually make business more difficult. This makes it vital for restaurants to not only implement strong digital messaging, but also to create a cohesive strategy.

“You have to be disciplined when you use digital,” Cook says. “We do a lot of work in menuboards and merchandising in the stores, and a lot of brands go overboard with the use of digital. Sometimes with moving digital signs, you can get so much going on that it slows down the order process.”

Elles also sees the need for a well-defined digital plan. “Screen placement and the corresponding content strategy for each screen are critical,” he says. “Consider the traffic patterns inside the store, how long customers stay at each touch point, and what they see when they are there. This will impact content type, the cadence of the playlist, how long certain pieces of content are displayed, and so on.”

Another challenge is that while digital media can create an entertaining environment, it can also be a hindrance if not properly controlled. When off-putting images appear on television, consumers become disengaged or even disgusted—a dangerous situation for restaurants that are trying to win loyal customers.

“The news isn’t always so pleasant, and customers definitely have stronger opinions about the source of their news,” Elles says. “Other programming may be inappropriate for kids, but falling back on television programs that are safe isn’t the best use of that valuable screen real estate. The concerns become, ‘What do I do about my competitors commercials?’ and, ‘How can I achieve better control over what my customers see and leverage that to my advantage in creating a stronger visual experience that also impacts my bottom line.’”

Cook also notes that simply turning on a television in a quick-service restaurant isn’t ideal, as consumers spend less time in quick-service locations than other places, so they aren’t going to watch a lot of TV. Instead, that content can be more effectively used as advertisements. “Video can be put to better use in restaurants if they have brand content,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be hard sell; it can be more informative—a softer, subtler sell.”

For these reasons, it is vital that restaurants have control over media and be able to curate the types of content that are broadcast. Yet many restaurants do not invest in digital signage and video because they feel it may make life more challenging, and they think they simply cannot afford it in today’s tough economic market.

“The most common misperceptions are that digital signage is expensive, difficult, and time consuming to manage,” Elles says. Many restaurant leaders also assume that using digital content will strain their networks and that curating content for them would be difficult.

Though it is an investment, costs for digital devices have dropped over the last few years, and plug and play media options with libraries of content make managing the digital visual environment easier than ever. Partnerships with digital solutions providers and designers also help make this process seamless. And investing in customer engagement offers a strong ROI through improved loyalty.

“Operators should consider the value of creating an appealing visual experience that makes customers feel comfortable and want to come back again and again,” Elles says.

By Peggy Carouthers

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