Low-Touch Economy: The New Normal for Restaurant Success

As states look to reopen their economies, fast food and quick-service restaurants face the daunting task of meeting the needs of customers who have dramatically changed their behavior and preferences in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s no surprise that consumers now clearly prefer low and zero contact interactions to ensure their safety, and recent data reveals not only the extent of this abrupt change in preferences, but also highlights impactful trends that all brands need to consider seriously.

Many of the current changes in customer preferences will likely last for years – and may even become permanent. As a result, restaurants need to develop both short-term and long-term plans for responding to these trends. While these plans must be built on a low-touch customer experience, they must also include an off-premises strategy designed to optimize that experience. Brands that are the most successful in doing this will not only survive the current crisis, but also thrive and gain market share over the coming years.

Mobile Makes a Low-Touch Customer Interaction Possible

The COVID-19 response is accelerating the trend toward mobile investments that was already present in the restaurant industry. Studies conducted in 2019 revealed that 96 percent of Americans own a cellphone of some kind – with smartphone ownership at 81 percent – and that by 2025, over 70 percent of internet users will depend solely on their smartphones for access.

Bluedot’s State of What Feeds Us report released last month directly connects the desire for low-touch restaurant interactions in response to COVID-19 with the use of smartphones. Consumers have increased their use of curbside pickup (33 percent) and the drive-thru (28 percent) compared to before the pandemic, and a significant number – three out of four – plan to continue using the drive-thru during the pandemic. To facilitate this, half of all consumers say they are downloading one or more mobile apps to interact with familiar brands, and the majority say they are adding more mobile apps to limit their contact with on-site staff.

Mobile makes it far easier for brands to interact with customers through contactless transactions that are safe for customers and employees. For instance, payment happens on mobile, eliminating the need to exchange physical money on premise; menu selection happens on mobile, in the comfort of one’s home; ordering on mobile, limits exposure inside restaurants; understanding mobile location makes for an efficient and time saving trip for the customer at curbside pickup and drive-thru. Mobile also creates an opportunity to attract, interact, and develop loyal customers who may otherwise not exist before. This is especially true for Gen Z and Millennials, who have an even higher smartphone adoption rate and present the largest opportunity for restaurants. 

Safety is Top of Mind for Consumers

Beyond COVID-19, top global quick serve restaurants are focused on how to leverage mobile technology to compete and grow in a post-crisis, low-touch environment. What should mobile facilitate to ensure positive brand interactions when there is no in-store, face-to-face counter experience?

Safety and taking necessary precautions are key. The Bluedot survey indicates that 43 percent of consumers are willing to explore new brands and new restaurants if they have a way to do so safely with a drive-thru or pickup option. And overwhelmingly, consumers feel safer at a drive-thru that offers low or zero human contact. Sanitization and safety information posted at the drive-thru is the next most important consideration. Brands must start by rethinking the end-to-end customer experience to convey health, safety and trust. However, over the longer term, consumers will also want frictionless and rewarding experiences. Restaurants will want to combine safety with efficiency, rewards, and even gamification.

Optimizing Low-Touch Interactions Starts Off-Premises

A complete low-touch experience that is safe, efficient and brand-friendly starts off-premises with a mobile app. Beyond that, the app should deliver a full rewards experience, including custom offers, which also enables brands to present personalized upsell and cross-sell opportunities. Support for gamification also allows brands to establish a fun and exciting relationship, especially with younger consumers.

Once customers arrive at a drive-thru or curbside pickup location, the low-touch experience must be fast and seamless. A correct and complete order should be timed well – ready upon arrival, fresh – as in non-soggy fries or melted drinks and handed to the correct vehicle with little to no interaction. Anything less will raise safety concerns and a poor customer experience.

Location-awareness in mobile apps makes this happen. For example, technologies such as geofencing, enable restaurants to know where mobile orders are coming from and the estimated customer arrival time for each, enabling every order to be ready and fresh when the customer arrives. Location technology can also enable the restaurant to know when a customer has pulled up to the curbside-pickup location or drive-thru window, so the correct order can be sequenced properly and quickly delivered every time.

As we emerge from the pandemic, mobile and low-touch ways of doing business will be critical to enabling the country to reopen and the economy to recover, creating a new normal for years to come. For restaurants, there will be clear winners and losers in the competition for customers seeking safe and efficient experiences. Brands that create these experiences with an end-to-end mobile strategy that starts off-premises and is powered by location-aware technology will be able to drive increased loyalty and revenue.