There’s no denying COVID-19 has brought many firsts and rapid change. For most, it’s the first crisis that has shifted the lives of everyone on the planet, all at the same time. The disruptions in our collective social environments and lifestyles have been far-reaching. Out of necessity, we’ve changed how we live and the ways in which we consume.
As we remain in this reality that is no longer new, we can be fairly certain that many of the pandemic-driven routines and behaviors we’ve adapted are not temporary. Understanding these new consumer habits will be critical for restaurant owners and operators as we begin to shift to the next version of our surreal, but very real “new” world.
RMS continues to examine how COVID has changed behavior permanently, in the US and abroad. In this post, our London-based Managing Director Philipp Laqué shares the dining habits and trends he believes will survive post-COVID — and the ones restaurant brands should focus on most.
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Digitization has transformed the out-of-home (OOH) market in the US, according to Laqué. Guests embraced new channels during the pandemic, leading to a different set of behaviors and expectations. Laqué believes some of these will remain with guests, wherever or however they might dine, including:
- Speed. Whether they’re ordering, paying, using loyalty programs or accessing offers and coupons, guests don’t want to wait. And why should they? Over the past year, they’ve grown accustomed to ordering and paying for their order when it’s convenient for them. In short, says Laqué, diners want to be in control of not only the situation but also the process.
- Skipping the middleman. Whether they order from home or in the restaurant, diners want a seamless and straightforward process with a single point of access. “In our research,” says Laqué, “RMS found that an increasing number of guests prefer to order directly from the restaurant rather than through a delivery provider.”
Restaurant operators are already meeting these expectations, says Laqué, and continued investment in digital channels will build loyalty and share. Laqué recommends prioritizing the following:
- The correct technology platform. A proprietary app is not always the right move, Laqué explains. “Often, a well-built website optimized for mobile (smartphones) is enough.”
- Infrastructure that follows the customer. It will be important for restaurants to offer guests the ability to create a user ID that follows them across all touchpoints, whether ordering in the restaurant or for delivery. This consistency benefits the consumer (ease of use) and gives operators the ability to track and analyze individual guest behavior across channels.
- A curbside pickup mentality. This COVID trend is not going anywhere, says Laqué. And in RMS’ most recent survey, the number of respondents ordering takeout at least once a week grew from 65% in November 2020 to 67% in February 2021. “It’s not only consumers that like this option. Curbside pickup has become especially helpful for casual dining chains and concepts, particularly for those restaurant brands that, due to production and product complexity, aren’t suitable for drive-thru.”
- Efficient drive-thrus. COVID has made the drive-thru a star performer for brands. During the past year, the demand for and popularity of the drive-thru has skyrocketed, with the channel outperforming all others. Operators need to continue to innovate and deliver greater efficiencies in the drive-thru, says Laqué, who also offered these three tips:
– Higher productivity with shorter wait times and greater capacity. Whether it’s achieved with more staff, two lanes or a multi-lane expansion, operators should aim to get more cars through the channel faster and with greater accuracy.
– Targeted demand management. Digital menu boards are the optimal route here as they can accommodate real-time changes according to time of day and weather, and can push personalized offers and upselling. Whatever the offer, Laqué says, “the aim is to generate larger checks — higher average receipts.” He offers an example specific to the digital drive-thru: “Bundling offers and combos specifically tailored to user profiles, like a family visit, speeds orders and sells more products.”
– Product optimization. Nothing complicated here. Improve and tweak products sold in the drive-thru — make items easier to handle and eat in the car.
- Offer loyalty and discount offers/coupons. These are tried-and-true tactics, says Laqué, and that’s OK. “The bounce-back coupon, for example, is a simple but incredibly effective customer engagement technique.” For customers who order online using a third-party delivery service, include a coupon for a discount if their next order is placed directly from the restaurant. Also, if your restaurant has a loyalty app, exclusive special offers will incentivize your customers to continue ordering directly from you. According to RMS’ consumer report, 60% of respondents said they decided to join a restaurant loyalty program because of the special offers and promotions. So, if you have a loyalty program, make sure to give your customers what they are looking for.
- Sustainable packaging. For delivery and takeaway orders, consumers expect little waste in product packaging and appreciate efforts at sustainability. Shake Shack, for example, is currently trialing biodegradable straws and cutlery. And Starbucks also recently launched a trial “Borrow a Cup” program in five Seattle stores in an effort to phase out disposable cups.
- Optimize portfolio and daypart. Thanks to digital sales channels, it’s far easier to conduct A/B tests to gain insights quickly, says Laqué. “We see more frequent and faster testing and innovation cycles that are less about new product launches and more about streamlining menus while still offering choices through portion sizes and combinations,” he explains. “In short, conduct a brief test, learn, implement and improve.”
- Prepare to grab market share at breakfast and lunch. The pandemic all but ravaged the OOH breakfast and lunch business, especially in city centers. Again, those consumer habits, in this case working from home, have stabilized, with only 6% of respondents in RMS’ recent survey returned to working primarily from the office in the previous last 3 months. Laqué predicts that in the US, breakfast and lunch will recover more slowly than dinner. This makes a focus on value key for operators, keeping in mind that “value” does not have to be synonymous with low price. “Value can also be achieved through service, product and quality of stay,” he says.
- Meat substitutes have a hefty impact. In the past year, about two-thirds of the US population tried plant-based meats. According to RMS findings, their primary motivation for doing so was to protect the environment. “While plant-based products are just one piece of the restaurant industry’s recovery,” says Laqué, “innovation and price are key to powering plant-based growth.” Offering it on menus matters: Of the group RMS surveyed, 30% said they would visit a different restaurant if it offered plant-based meats.