Restaurant lines have continued to blur as sales bounce back and a new landscape settles. Mostly, this has darted through two places: Technology and accessibility, which has brought the operating models of fast food and fast casual closer together. Drive-thrus and pickup lanes are now on the real estate calendars of both.
The days of fast casuals sparking development through inline builds has progressed into something pliable. As has the notion upscale chains only circle urban markets. Brands like Shake Shack, Starbucks, and Sweetgreen, as well as Chipotle, have evolved toward suburban locales to accommodate those same new builds, which serve today as omnichannel hubs as much as anything else, from dedicated curbside spots to the ability to deliver choice beyond what customers order off the menu; it’s become a race to present multiple ordering options.
And all of this has also touched full service and casual dining in particular. Smokey Bones, Texas Roadhouse, Applebee’s, and others are building or tacking on windows (a full drive-thru in Smoke Bones’ case) to streamline off-premises.
But past the designs themselves, you could also credit mobile ordering for accelerating this reality. It’s made it increasingly difficult for brands to differentiate on an open marketplace. As Intouch Insight explains in its latest Mobile Ordering Trends Report, when consumers are using the same device or application to order prepare food, the customer experience is difficult to split.
Mobile applications are only gaining steam. Seventy-one percent of consumers in the study, based on two sets of data—surveys of more than 1,000 responses and mystery shoppers completing 500 purchases—reported using a mobile app to buy food from a restaurant.
The trend line for C-stores has shifted, too. There was a 47 percent spike, even with relatively low usage, of alternative shopping methods (like mobile ordering) to complete a purchase from a C-store in the summer of 2022.
Intouch Insight noted this was noteworthy given prepared food and groceries were the top two more purchased items from C-stores using alternative methods. So mobile applications, in theory, have the potential to become one of the prepared food world’s hottest battlegrounds headed into 2023.
What items did you purchase via mobile app from a C-store?
- Prepared food: 24 percent
- Groceries: 24 percent
- Snacks: 17 percent
- Sport/soft drinks: 16 percent
- Coffee: 11 percent
The biggest growth in last-mile services from C-stores came from those placing orders for delivery, especially via third-party. This should alert quick-serves, Intouch Insights said, since aggregators are offering prepared food from C-stores and restaurants side-by-side.
How did you complete your delivery order from a C-store?
- Fall 2021: 19 percent
- Summer 2022: 37 percent
- Fall 2021: 19 percent
- Summer 2022: 47 percent
The C-store conversation has ebbed and flowed over the years, in terms of whether they’re threatening quick-service restaurants’ market share head on or not. But that topic has jumped of late. Given gas prices, ecommerce options like Amazon for household items, and, to Intouch Insight’s point, how third-party aggregators have redefined convenience, C-stores have been forced to rethink why people show up. Gas isn’t the only beacon. Brands like Buc-ees and Wawa are drawing traffic for products. And chains such as 7-Eleven are creating proprietary restaurant concepts (Raise the Roost Chicken and Biscuit, for one) in its Evolution design. And then there’s the technology and potential drive-thru aspects of where this category could evolve. An earlier report from Bluedot found 61 percent of consumers would visit a C-store more often if mobile ordering, drive-thru, and curbside pickup were available.
Fifty-nine percent noted they’d consider purchasing a meal from a C-store when stopping for fast food. One in four respondents added they visit C-stores for lunch. Of that, 29 percent do so for fast food (brands inside the location or proprietary setups, like 7-Eleven); 27 percent eat grab-and-go refrigerated items; 25 percent hot food (like pizza or hot dogs, etc.); and 21 percent made-to-order food. Also, 51 percent drop in for snacks; 20 percent for grocery items; and 16 percent for alcoholic beverages.
Essentially, Bluedot’s data painted a picture of a willing C-store consumer ready to interchange occasions with fast food. But, with the caveat the latter closes the convenience gap that has long separated them—namely the drive-thru; the fact fast food is generally a direct daypart visit and C-stores a complementary occasion that accompanies filling up on gas.
What Intouch Insight suggests is that narrowing is already taking place thanks to the third-party marketplace.
A party debate
The first versus third-party discussion is hardly fresh to 2022. Aggregators challenge brands’ ability to control customer journeys and predict future ones. Yet the reach alone typically outweighs the concern. Sometimes, there’s no real choice as well for brands who can’t white-label networks at scale, or compete with the hyper-marketing third-party companies are known for.
Intouch Insight measured the experience provided by both across brands that offer prepared food, using a mystery shopping program to evaluate real-time performance. While the data showed first-party apps generally scored higher across lead metrics, restaurants will need to do more to outperform aggregators in order to ensure they drive consumers toward their own channels, the company said.
Intouch Insight used net promoter scores to take stock (how likely consumers were to recommend to others). As part of the mystery shopping study, shoppers were asked to rate their likelihood to recommend the brand’s first-party apps or third-party delivery service.
Fast casual pulsed in the data. There, customers were far more likely to recommend first-party options compared to third-party services.
Intouch Insight also looked at customer satisfaction scores (CSAT), which values guests’ overall satisfaction with a product or services. Again, the biggest gap flashed in fast casual.
When it came to the leading reason consumers chose a mobile app, though, the concept was a uniform one: convenience. And this is where third-party platforms have historically edged ahead. The ability to offer variety alongside convenience is difficult to rival. It’s why first-party apps, Intouch Insights said, need to win across other metrics (one point being price and regularly communicated, and personalized, incentives).
What factors influence your decisions to use a mobile app for a prepared food purchase?
- Convenience: 68 percent
- Prefers to eat at home: 42 percent
- Faster than dining in: 17 percent
- Ability to track order progress: 13 percent
- Fewer interactions with employees: 8 percent
“We found that convenience is the number one factor that drives consumers to use a mobile app to order food. Brands who want to delight customers with mobile ordering and draw traffic from third-party applications must concentrate their efforts on enhancing key elements of the user experience, making it as easy as possible for consumers to order online directly from their own channels,” says Laura Livers, head of strategic growth at Intouch Insight.
Into the differentiators
If brands want to transfer third-party loyalists into first-party regulars, it starts with experience. According to Intouch Insights’ report, the two most crucial elements proved to be order accuracy and speed of service. First- and third-party apps performed closely, but white label outperformed in most cases. “However, it's important to remember the rise of new consumer concerns,” the company said. “Even without social distancing requirements, most customers still feel safer avoiding in-person interactions and third-party apps are leading the way regards to contactless service.”
How do you expect your use of mobile ordering to change in the coming months?
- Increase: 6 percent
- Stay the same: 61 percent
- Decrease: 33 percent
- Considering the above results, mobile ordering isn’t going anywhere.
Ranking various aspects of their ordering experience from most to least important, order accuracy was far and away the top factor, with 86 percent of respondents listing it as the first or second most critical element, followed by the temperature of the food and the speed of delivery. Naturally, those final two are joined at the hip.
On average, one in 10 orders were inaccurate across all apps and segments via Intouch Insight’s mystery shopping data. In-house fast-food channels came in under third-party.
“Brands have complete control when setting customer expectations around speed of service with first-party apps—making it an area they can truly differentiate themselves,” Intouch Insights said.
Still, despite outperforming third-party apps, customers were still receiving orders placed through first-party late 13–19 percent of the time. So there’s growth to chase.
To the earlier point on social distancing, there remain plenty of customers who appreciate the anonymous nature of mobile ordering. It’s a habit that’s been added to their occasion set. One day a guest might want to go inside and talk to somebody; another they might want to eat in their car with the radio on. The difference, widely, is now they have option.
Do you feel safer using a mobile app than ordering at a counter in-person?
- No: 23 percent
- Yes: 77 percent
Do you feel safer having food delivered than picking up your order in-person?
- No: 27 percent
- Yes: 73 percent
But much of the hand-off remains inside the restaurant.
Where did you pick up your order placed via a first-part app?
- Inside/counter: 89 percent
- Outside/curbside: 9 percent
- Other: 2 percent
“This discrepancy appears to be caused by third-party apps offering contactless service far more consistently than first-party apps—marking a major area for improvement as brands look to drive more users to their own apps,” Intouch Insights said.
Did the service offer contactless pickup/delivery?
- Yes: 67 percent
- No: 33 percent
- Yes: 96 percent
- No: 4 percent
In the end, mobile ordering has become a ubiquitous part of the ordering journey. It appears the same is happening for white-label as brands look to regain control.
“While mobile ordering isn’t new, it is now table stakes for those offering prepared food,” Livers says. “To ensure a great customer experience and continue to own your customer relationships, it’s crucial for brands to go beyond the pandemic pivot and make the investment in their own mobile experience.