RMS research explores how casual restaurants can use their menu to capture the new digital consumer

More than half of all quick-service and limited-service restaurant sales will be digital by 2025, according to market research firm Incisiv.

Is your menu ready?

As digital sales rose like a rocket ship this past year, the use of printed menus shot down in the opposite direction, taking with it years of thoughtful planning and menu design.

While menu obsolescence could be cause for concern, we believe it opens up a new era of menu design and engineering. Instead of two print runs a year, digital menus allow operators to change with the seasons, the days, the temperature, even based on which customer is staring at the screen. By changing a few lines of code, items that once appeared on the back of a menu or bottom of a screen can now appear at the top. Or in the middle, or grouped by color, or—you get the idea.

The promise and permutations of the ideal menu design to tempt diners to spend more is appetizing, indeed. However, it can also be overwhelming.

We have been serving the restaurant industry with data analytics expertise and solutions for more than 25 years and have led our clients through a great deal of change. Admittedly, the changes caused by the pandemic have happened far faster than anything we have seen — or could have imagined. Yet the basics of the scientific method hold true, even during “unprecedented times.” Which is why we have partnered with Dr. Rob Hammond, the Director of the Center for Marketing and Sales Innovation at the University of South Florida (USF) Muma College of Business, to better understand how consumers navigate digital menus, menu boards and the use of QR codes.

“Brands are investing in personalized, digital ordering solutions to meet customers where they are, which is primarily somewhere other than their restaurant,” says Dr. Christina Norton, RMS’ Director of Behavioral Research. “Yet as we move back to in-person dining, we believe digital ordering and QR codes will remain a primary channel of communication. Brands have an opportunity to present their menu in ways that benefit both brand and customer.”

The study, “Biometric Exploration of Menus and Unexpected Elements,” focuses on a person’s “gaze path” — the path a participant’s eyes take as they scan or view a screen — and explores five specific areas:

  1. The gaze path subjects take as they review an online menu, asking the question: is there a universal path, or is there considerable variance that is unique to the individual?
  2. The impact of item placement, design and layout on the gaze path.
  3. How unexpected elements (different food choices and graphics) impact the customer’s menu selection/purchasing behavior.
  4. How primacy and recency affect decisions in menu item selection.   
  5. The impact of online ordering on recall. Do customers remember what they ordered and how much they paid?

The study is built with a new online data collection solution by tech leader iMotions, which uses a browser interface and a participant’s webcam to collect data, creating a lab setting for participants without the lab. Study participants (a total of 500) will answer a series of demographic-related survey questions, then view a mock, yet fully functional, digital menu storefront. Participants review the menus, decide what they would like to eat, and select the items. The study goes as far as asking respondents to enter fictitious credit card details to simulate the full purchase experience.

(The only downside: Actual food is never served.)

After making menu decisions, participants are surveyed about their typical experience dining out. Questions will delve into frequency, typical cost and common item selection: “What do you typically eat for dinner at a casual dining restaurant?” for example. Once baselines are established, impacts on changes will be analyzed to answer questions such as: how do gaze paths change based on different formats and do changes in focus result in changes in purchase?

Of particular interest to restaurants will be the addition of an “unexpected element,” for example, an appetizer in the entree section in the gaze path. Does it lead to greater focus on the section or item? The answer to this question could lead to more dynamic menu design and, potentially, bigger checks. 

This is not the first study RMS has undertaken with higher education institutions; in late 2019, RMS and USF jointly launched “The Future of Menu Design”. At the time, the survey was the largest study of its kind to use biometric data collection, including eye movements, to understand how customers read physical menus.

We continue to add new partnerships with universities known for industry-leading research, including University of Florida, North Carolina State University, Michigan Technological University, University of Guelph and others. Doing so ensures that the most recent academic insights inform RMS’ practical and tech-enabled solutions for restaurants are informed by the most recent academic insights.

The past year involved a lot of firsts, says Dr. Joel Davis, RMS’ Chief Strategy Officer, and a few lasts. The key to change? “Make better decisions guided by analytics and data,” says Davis, “not just gut.”

As we work with emerging leaders in research, marketing, analytics, technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence, RMS will continue to create better models, which, as Norton says, “the strongest leaders can incorporate into their strategic conversations and company cultures, leading to a renewed and informed path to success.” 

If you’d like to learn more about RMS solutions for the restaurant industry and how we help restaurants maximize their menus, visit our Menu Engineering page.

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