At the start of the summer, restaurants were optimistic. COVID-19 cases were finally low, with newly vaccinated consumers’ pent-up demand combining with usual seasonality to suggest that it would be a great few months for restaurants. While sales have in fact been on the rise each month, per U.S. Census Bureau data, the rise of the delta variant is putting a damper on the optimism, suggesting that there may be some difficult months ahead.
Just as restaurants pivoted to meet consumers’ changing needs at the start of the pandemic, the resurgence could prompt a change in customers’ ordering habits. At this point, while the delta variant does not appear to be having a dramatic effect on the overall quantity of orders fielded through digital channels, it is shifting the mix away from shared public devices and toward mobile ordering.
“At the high level, it seems like not much [is changing] in terms of order volume through digital,” Nat Trienens, founder and CEO of digital ordering solutions provider Koala, told PYMNTS in an interview. “You do see a bit of a shift toward bring-your-own-device-type activities … There’s a little bit of a hesitancy to engage with either a human behind the counter or a shared digital device like a kiosk, with COVID being where it’s at and remaining where it’s at.”
Koala works with restaurant brands including Shake Shack, P.F. Chang’s and TGI Fridays, powering ordering for over 4,000 restaurant locations. The company’s products include web and mobile ordering tools, digital kiosks and a mobile point-of-sale (POS) solution.
Controlling the Omnichannel Experience
“Unknowns are always the scariest thing, said Trienens. “You know — where are mask mandates going? Will that reduce the number of customers coming in?”
In the first year of the pandemic, many restaurants scrambled to become as digitally accessible to consumers as possible, piecing together an online presence from a range of web platforms, third-party marketplaces, loyalty app providers and more. Now, as would-be dine-in customers begin to hang back, opting for off-premise channels, restaurants have an opportunity to rethink their strategy for digital’s long-term future, taking control of and consolidating their omnichannel offerings.
“If they’re reliant on the third-party services, then obviously those fees are significant, and they really want to push people toward own-channel through good loyalty and good experiences,” said Trienens. “The consistency of those experiences is very important, and then secondarily, the ability to control those experiences through a single portal is very important.”
He added that when various channels — mobile, desktop and in-restaurant — are not in communication with one another, and when each offers consumers a different “look and feel and experience,” the result “feels a bit broken to the customer.”
Give the People What They Want
One way in which many restaurants are failing to adjust to today’s consumers’ needs, Trienens said, is by foregrounding their marketing site and backgrounding their ordering site, such that, say, restaurant’s name dot com will lead consumers to the former, while ordering will take place through a separate URL. He noted that restaurants can take a hint from retail, as retailers began centering their commerce sites back in the ‘00s.
“I think that same kind of shift where, on web and maybe across digital, you’ll see ordering become a more front-and-center experience for restaurants in the same way it has for other industries,” he said.
He also predicts that personalization will become an increasingly vital part of restaurants’ digital experiences, using machine learning to adjust menus based on the customer’s previous orders, among other data points. “There’s a lot of opportunity to do meaningful things around menu adjustments as people become repeat customers to the digital channels,” he said.
Bringing Digital Into the Restaurant
Even inside of restaurants, consumers are increasingly opting for low-contact options. “We … see that transition to digital becoming a primary in-the-store driver,” said Trienens. “Everybody is interacting with QR codes at almost every restaurant in the country.”
While most restaurants’ codes lead to static menus, he believes restaurants will increasingly make these digital in-store menus actionable, integrating ordering and POS capabilities.
Data from PYMNTS’ 2021 Restaurant Readiness Index, created in collaboration with Paytronix, found that in April, 29% of restaurants’ managers and customers believe the ability to pay with QR codes will be key to driving long-term success. This figure is almost twice the share who thought so in September of 2020. Additionally, a third of those surveyed believe that QR codes enhancing end-to-end experiences will be key.
“I think there’s a lot of attention and effort being put into [digital] channels relative to what it used to be, so the pace of innovation, and making them stronger as an experience, is accelerating,” said Trienens. “Digital is moving from order-ahead and delivery to a universal experience, and I think we’ll see that trend continue to accelerate.”