First-ever buyer’s journey identified for restaurant online menus

If the drive-thru was the restaurant industry’s workhorse during the pandemic’s early days, online menus are emerging as the dark horse of untapped revenue opportunities of the current never-normal.

In a first-of-its-kind research study, Revenue Management Solutions analysts worked with the University of South Florida’s Center for Marketing and Sales Innovation (CMSI) to better understand online menu ordering behavior. With the help of remote technology developed by iMotions, researchers used participants’ webcams to gather eye-tracking data as they ordered from TGI Fridays’ online test menu via their desktops or laptops.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the restaurant industry has relied heavily on online sales, first out of necessity and now out of habit. “We’ve been advising our RMS restaurant clients that online ordering is here to stay,” says Christina Norton, director, behavioral research for RMS. “As diners continue to rely on takeout and delivery, we knew there was a very real need to learn more about how consumers navigate online platforms.” 

Four phases of a buyer’s online ordering journey

The study findings were surprising. Among the most notable? The RMS and USF research team found that when reviewing and ordering from an online menu, customers embark on a task-driven journey, much like a “buyer’s journey.”

A buyer’s journey in the business world charts a customer’s path to purchase. It’s often divided into three to four stages, usually comprising some degree of research, consideration, and decision or purchase. According to Ryan Garner, data architect for Revenue Management Solutions, “We noticed the eyes doing very different ‘dances’ that aligned with the contextual task they were undertaking at the moment — basically a buyer’s journey, but applied to ordering food online.”

The four stages of the online ordering buyer’s journey, along with corresponding mental tasks, include the following:

Phase 1 Familiarization: Respondents “make sense” of the online menu, navigating the entire menu or website. As soon as they understand the layout, they shift to the next phase.

Phase 2 — Exploration: Respondents take time to explore the menu, narrowing and evaluating choices up to the moment they add an item to the cart.

Phase 3 — Affirmation: Respondents begin adding items to the cart while toggling back to menu options to add or search additional items, including placing an order for a second person.

Phase 4 — Confirmation: Respondents complete checkout.

Rethinking the menu: suggestive selling actions for operators

Here’s where the findings become opportunities for action. Within the phases RMS identified, their work also revealed suggestive selling tweaks operators can make to online menu ordering designs — and where to adjust for errors in current timing. “The timing of upcharges is a critical design feature,” says Norton.

Most current online ordering systems suggest add-ons right before paying. Turns out that is the worst time to increase check. When people start the checkout process, they have already committed to their order. Stats from the research confirm this finding: When participants were presented with a suggestion menu at checkout, only 2% ordered from it.

Based on study behaviors, the best time to pursue upcharges and adding extra entrees appears to be during the affirmation stage (stage 3 out of 4 in the buyer’s journey).

“We found that respondents were more likely to change their minds or add items during the exploration and affirmation phases of the process,” said Garner. “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.”

TGI Fridays, which volunteered its menu for the study, has found the study findings to be valid. “In the past 18 months, we’ve undergone a seismic shift in the way our customers interact with our menu,” said Sara Bittorf, TGI Fridays Chief Experience Officer. “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.”

Using these insights, brands have some real opportunities to increase check on their online menu ordering system, says Norton. “We believe every online menu format would benefit from running a diagnostic on how consumers are navigating it.”

RMS is finalizing the next phase of the ongoing research to investigate how consumers navigate brand menus with different designs across various media, including online, mobile and physical menus. The analysis will also include age and gender demographics and compare cost/spend recall to actual cost.

If your franchise is interested in participating in the next phase or would like help running menu diagnostics, reach out to us today. RMS is committed to your success and is here to help.

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