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The average restaurant customer today orders using four different channels in any given month.

Welcome to the Digital Restaurant Revolution

Thanks to COVID realities, the value of multichannel ordering has never been clearer.

Despite COVID-19’s acceleration of contactless options, robotics, automation, AI, and every tech-fueled corner of foodservice imaginable, hospitality isn’t going the way of the floppy disk for restaurants. In truth, you could argue it’s never been more paramount given the blurring lines between fast casual and quick service, across channels like drive-thru and curbside, and how full-service brands are being asked to deliver convenience and experience, and make it worth the added price of admission.

But how guests define hospitality has changed—their expectations of where and when restaurants deliver it. Customers don’t have to accept cold or overpriced food for takeout. Pulling up to a drive-thru doesn’t mean taking a gamble on quality. COVID introduced off-premises avenues to customers nationwide. And while wiggle room was a given initially, the sector has crowded to the edges. With more options comes higher stakes.

Take this recent study for example: Revenue Management Solutions and the University of South Florida’s Center for Marketing and Sales Innovation, along with the latter organization’s director Dr. Rob Hammond, used remote eye-tracking technology to dive into TGI Fridays’ latest digital efforts. Namely, to get a clear view of how consumers navigate online menus and where issues/opportunities lie.

Two main points emerged. One, distinct search patterns revealed “blind spots” when guests review online menus on desktop. Secondly, the study showed suggestive selling opportunities within a “buyer’s journey” of online ordering.

The study, using technology developed by iMotions, began in May and marked the first remote eye-tracking study of online ordering behavior. Essentially, participants’ webcams tracked behavior as they ordered from TGI Fridays’ online test menu via desktop or laptop. It was then analyzed using emotional AI tools, and pre- and post-study survey responses assessed participants’ recall of their ordering path, behavior, and total spend.

“In the past 18 months, we’ve undergone a seismic shift in the way our customers interact with our menu,” Sara Bittorf, chief experience officer at TGI Fridays, said in a statement. “The research has already given us tools to improve the guest experience and increase menu profitability. We’re looking forward to exploring further menu engineering insights as the research proceeds.”

READ MORE: Challenged by COVID, TGI Fridays Fights its Way Back

So what did this uncover? Preliminary findings indicated a persistent blind spot on the left side of the digital menu. Although each respondent had a unique path, people started with a site’s main menu categories (appetizers, sandwiches, etc.), reading across from left to right. Their focus then shifted down toward the center of the screen, like a “T,” and navigated predominantly to the right of center. Results showed roughly 50 percent of the time, respondents missed items displayed on the left of the screen altogether.

RMS.

RMS and USF’s research also laid a blueprint for a distinct buyer’s journey within online ordering. This is where the suggestive selling opportunity focuses. The study observed four discrete phases with mental tasks and outcomes for each, including:

  • Familiarization: Respondents scanned the entire menu/website.
  • Exploration: Respondents narrowed and evaluated choices.
  • Affirmation: Respondents began adding items to the cart while toggling back to menu options to add or search additional items.
  • Confirmation: Respondents completed checkout.

“We found that respondents were more likely to change their mind or add items during the exploration and affirmation phases of the process,” Ryan Garner, data architect for RMS, said in a statement. “Yet most suggestive selling happens during checkout. If these results translate across many menus—and we anticipate that they will—it could be a game changer for operators.”

Up next on the research agenda will be investigating how consumers navigate brand menus with different designs across various media, such as online, mobile, and physical menus. Analysis will also include age and gender demographics, compare cost/spend recall to actual cost and evaluate ordering behavior. It’s expected to conclude this winter.

RMS and CMSI first joined in 2019 to conduct in-laboratory eye-tracking research on physical restaurant menus.

But as this all proves, the nature of data and its value to restaurants was rattled by COVID’s longevity. Brand value and satisfying demand no longer lives just within the four walls.

The value of multichannel ordering

Paytronix Systems’ latest report in an ongoing series, “Delivering on Restaurant Rewards,” collaborated with PYMNTS to examine why multiple purchasing options are driving revenue at this fork in the pandemic saga. It explored the ways in which restaurant customers order food, and how it relates to their desire to earn, engage with, and use restaurant rewards. A census-balanced panel of 2,072 U.S. consumers were surveyed about how they place orders, whether they use loyalty programs, and what they want from those programs.

“The restaurant ecosystem that has emerged over the past 16 months is more omnichannel and diverse than it has ever been,” the report said.

As dine-in business returns (and even as it wavers amid Delta concerns), focusing on a lone set of ordering options can leave a lot of business on the table. Rather, restaurants are trying to strike a balance by offering a mix of ordering channels that suit customers’ needs and expectations, and do so in a way that reflects brand differentiators as much as possible.

The average restaurant customer, per the study, orders using four different channels in any given month. So there are chances to capture more cross-channel food order spend that before COVID, which is a silver lining worth latching onto.

“The real question is not whether consumers will use different ordering channels if their restaurants offer them but rather how often they will use them,” the study said.

How often are consumers placing different types of restaurant orders?

Share who place table-service restaurant orders via different channels, by frequency

Aggregators

  • Twice a week or more: 29.5 percent
  • Once every 1–2 weeks: 37.2 percent
  • Once a month or less: 33.3 percent

Mobile order ahead

  • Twice a week or more: 25 percent
  • Once every 1–2 weeks: 37.7 percent
  • Once a month or less: 37.3 percent

Restaurant’s website

  • Twice a week or more: 20.5 percent
  • Once every 1–2 weeks: 41.7 percent
  • Once a month or less: 37.8 percent

Phone call

  • Twice a week or more: 20.6 percent
  • Once every 1–2 weeks: 40.3 percent
  • Once a month or less: 39.1 percent

Dine-in with outdoor seating

  • Twice a week or more: 17.3 percent
  • Once every 1–2 weeks: 35.1 percent
  • Once a month or less: 47.6 percent

Dine-in with indoor seating

  • Twice a week or more: 20.2 percent
  • Once every 1–2 weeks: 43.6 percent
  • Once a month or less: 36.2 percent

And the same for quick-service restaurants:

Aggregators

  • Twice a week or more: 29.8 percent
  • Once every 1–2 weeks: 36.2 percent
  • Once a month or less: 34 percent

Mobile order ahead

  • Twice a week or more: 23.1 percent
  • Once every 1–2 weeks: 42.7 percent
  • Once a month or less: 34.2 percent

Restaurant’s website

  • Twice a week or more: 22.3 percent
  • Once every 1–2 weeks: 41.4 percent
  • Once a month or less: 36.3 percent

Phone call

  • Twice a week or more: 21.8 percent
  • Once every 1–2 weeks: 40 percent
  • Once a month or less: 38.2 percent

Dine-in with outdoor seating

  • Twice a week or more: 14.7 percent
  • Once every 1–2 weeks: 37.2 percent
  • Once a month or less: 48.2 percent

Dine-in with indoor seating

  • Twice a week or more: 14.4 percent
  • Once every 1–2 weeks: 41.9 percent
  • Once a month or less: 43.7 percent

According to Paytronix data, restaurant customers tend to order online more often than they do over the phone or in person, with aggregators and mobile order-ahead options being used more than any other digital purchasing channel. Thirty percent of both full- and quick-service restaurant guests who ordered via aggregator did so twice per week or more. Twenty-five and 23 percent of sit-down and counter-service customers, respectively, who ordered via mobile order-ahead did so just as often. This compared to 21 percent of table-service guests who ordered food via desktop website twice per week or more and 22 percent of quick-serve users who did the same.

The skinny is ordering online does not preclude guests from ordering over the phone or in-person. The average restaurant customer still places orders using the latter two methods, the report said, doing so only slightly less often than they ordered online. Twenty-one percent of full-service restaurant customers (22 percent for quick service) who ordered via telephone did so twice per week or more. Twenty percent ordered and dined on-site twice per week or more (compared to 14 percent for quick service).

It’s all a roundabout path to say most consumers in this pandemic climate place restaurant orders using a wide variety of ordering channels. What operators must uncover is which ordering channels they use most frequently.

TGI Fridays

TGI Fridays has made strides in its off-premises execution.

Shifting to rewards, loyalty programs have become a significant part of the pandemic story. They were pre-COVID as well, but the aim is different today. It’s gone from a branding and frequency tool to a convenience one as well—a place to order digitally with little friction or contact, and to also get rewarded along the way. Customers want to earn rewards the same way they order food: using smartphones.

Five of the most common ways restaurant guests want to interact with their restaurants’ loyalty programs involved mobile devices, per the study. Mobile check-ins topped the list at 54 percent. An additional 53 percent of people said they would like to receive rewards via restaurants’ mobile apps, and 50 percent would like to get them via text messages.

How do consumers want to engage with restaurants’ loyalty programs?

Share who would like to interact with loyalty programs in select ways, by type of restaurant.

Provide cashier phone number

  • At least one restaurant: 54.8 percent
  • Full service: 53.4 percent
  • Quick service: 52.4 percent

Mobile check-in

  • At least one restaurant: 53.9 percent
  • Full service: 53.4 percent
  • Quick service: 51.2 percent

Through restaurant’s app

  • At least one restaurant: 52.7 percent
  • Full service: 47.1 percent
  • Quick service: 58.1 percent

Text message

  • At least one restaurant: 49.5 percent
  • Full service: 48.4 percent
  • Quick service: 47.1 percent

Plastic card

  • At least one restaurant: 42.1 percent
  • Full service: 41.9 percent
  • Quick service: 37.8 percent

Physical punch card

  • At least one restaurant: 36.5 percent
  • Full service: 36.3 percent
  • Quick service: 32 percent

Digital wallet

  • At least one restaurant: 28.3 percent
  • Full service: 27.3 percent
  • Quick service: 31 percent

Third-party’s app

  • At least one restaurant: 12.8 percent
  • Full service: 12 percent
  • Quick service: 12.8 percent

Some takeaways: Quick-service customers appear especially interested in being able to receive rewards via mobile apps, with 58 percent saying so. There’s a lot more built-up behavior in this field than full service. Between Starbucks and Chipotle, you’re talking (with plenty of cross-over, surely) some 36 million active rewards members this past quarter.

Receiving rewards via digital wallet and third-party provider apps also proved common ways restaurant customers wanted to interact with loyalty programs. Twenty-eight percent said they’d like to earn rewards via digital wallet, while 13 percent picked a third-party mobile app.

As noted, 85 percent of all restaurant loyalty program users wanted to interact with a smartphone-enabled method, “underscoring how important mobile-centric purchasing options and loyalty programs will be in restaurants’ customer engagement strategies going forward,” the study said.

The days of relying on discounts and discounts alone have clouded, too, although promotions and incentives still carry weight. Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they’d like to gain access to restaurants at peak times, and 32 percent would like to be offered custom menu options.

Saving money, however, remains top-of-mind. The two most common benefits guests said they’d like to receive were free food and discounts at 78 and 66 percent, respectively. As many as 81 percent of quick-service customers who use loyalty programs tapped free food as a goal, and 72 percent wanted discounts.

“Saving money may be diners’ highest priority, but there are countless ways in which restaurants can tap loyalty programs to add value to their customers’ dining experiences,” the report said.

Customized offerings pulsed with full-service users, as 38 percent said they’d like to dine on-site during peak hours (32 percent for quick service). “This goes to show how table-service restaurants can leverage their brick-and-mortar presence to enhance their loyalty and rewards offerings,” the report added.

An additional 33 percent of sit-down guests said they’d prefer personalized rewards offerings, topping 26 percent for counter-service brands.

What are the types of rewards customers want to receive?

Share who consider select benefits when deciding whether to sign up for loyalty programs, by restaurant type.

Complementary food

  • At least one restaurant: 77.7 percent
  • Full service: 72.3 percent
  • Quick service: 80.7 percent

Customized coupons or discounts

  • At least one restaurant: 65.5 percent
  • Full service: 57.4 percent
  • Quick service: 71.9 percent

Gaining busy hours access

  • At least one restaurant: 37.9 percent
  • Full service: 37.9 percent
  • Quick service: 31.5 percent

Order reminder and status

  • At least one restaurant: 35.4 percent
  • Full service: 34.6 percent
  • Quick service: 28.9 percent

Customized menu

  • At least one restaurant: 32.1 percent
  • Full service: 33.4 percent
  • Quick service: 26.4 percent

Order suggestions

  • At least one restaurant: 27.4 percent
  • Full service: 26.8 percent
  • Quick service: 22.2 percent

Restaurant hours notification

  • At least one restaurant: 16.7 percent
  • Full service: 17 percent
  • Quick service: 13.2 percent

The report found another shifting point from loyalty business as we once knew it—guests now want to be rewarded not only for the money they spend, but also for providing contact information and for supporting restaurants on social media.

The most common way restaurant guests want to earn rewards is by accumulating them for every dollar spent (72 percent). The second- and third-most common outlets were per visit and per-product purchased (69 and 48 percent). Yet this does not mean all loyalty programs must focus on spending. There remain opportunities to offer consumers fresh ways to support restaurants and earn points without forking up money.

Thirty-seven percent said they’d like points for providing contact information, while 34 percent believed positive reviews or shares on social media deserved recognition. “This opens the door for restaurants to reimagine their loyalty engagement strategies and expand how consumers can support them while also earning rewards,” the report said.

How would consumers like to earn restaurant rewards?

Share who would prefer to earn loyalty points in select ways, by type of restaurant.

Value of spending

  • At least one restaurant: 71.7 percent
  • Full service: 65.8 percent
  • Quick service: 73.6 percent

Number of visits

  • At least one restaurant: 68.5percent
  • Full service: 69.1 percent
  • Quick service: 62.3 percent

Number of product purchased

  • At least one restaurant: 47.9 percent
  • Full service: 44.9 percent
  • Quick service: 49.7 percent

Contact information

  • At least one restaurant: 37.4 percent
  • Full service: 35.4 percent
  • Quick service: 38.6 percent

Social media support

  • At least one restaurant: 34.3 percent
  • Full service: 35.8 percent
  • Quick service: 30.9 percent