The Personal Touch


What’s for supper? That question has taken on new importance this past year with so many people sheltering at home. With more families eating dinner together at home, rather than grabbing a bite to eat while shuffling among other activities, they’re turning increasingly to restaurant apps or websites for inspiration.

Digital ordering, or e-commerce as it is often called, is not new or unique to the foodservice industry but, according to The NPD Group/CREST foodservice database, digital ordering’s share of foodservice dollars tripled in 2020. But, at just 12 per cent, foodservice trails most other retail segments, which means there’s still plenty of upside potential — and potential upheaval. While we can be certain that some of this digital volume will go back to brick-and-mortar retailers and restaurants, some of it will most certainly remain online.

More than 700-million foodservice orders were placed digitally this past year. This includes any order placed through a mobile app or on the Internet. And yes, this includes orders through third-party apps. In fact, these third-party apps now account for 40 per cent of all digital orders and about three quarters of all delivery orders. But it’s worth noting that about half of all digital orders were for carry out/drive-thru — digital isn’t all about delivery.

The NPD Group/E-Commerce Channel Report 2020 reports that 85 per cent of all Canadian shoppers ordered something digitally in 2020, including about half who ordered a restaurant meal (up 14 points since 2019). And it isn’t just younger cohorts taking advantage of these tools. The fastest-growing cohorts for digital ordering are those over the age of 45.

Digital orders are not necessarily placed where the transaction began. About one quarter of all digital restaurant orders begin on the restaurant brand’s own website/app, while 15-per-cent start with a Google search. Another 10-per-cent started with the competition, while one quarter began with a third-party-delivery platform.

When foodservice customers turn to digital platforms to place their order, they’re searching for more than just convenience and selection — first and foremost, they’re looking for a good deal. Next on the list, though, are attributes related to brand loyalty and personal preferences. These are the areas where you will win the hearts, minds and wallets of your customers. Digital restaurant customers are more likely to participate in a loyalty program; are more likely to take advantage of a deal; and are more likely to use a digital coupon. So, what came first — the app, the loyalty program or the digital deal? It doesn’t matter. They’re all intertwined at this point, which means that any digital platform should include some, if not all, of these elements.

The biggest challenge of digital-ordering platforms is that they remove the one-on-one interactions that help to support a brand message and build a personal connection with a customer, so restaurants need to find new ways to provide this engagement. Two techniques I can suggest are decidedly low-tech. First, make sure to provide a phone number for customers to call your restaurant and encourage them to use it to place orders — don’t force them to place digital orders. Remember, as many as 10 per cent of digital orders started on a competitor’s website, which was likely abandoned when the guest had a bad experience there.

Second, try placing a simple thank you in the take-out package — either a card or a quick handwritten note on a takeout container. This is especially important with third-party deliveries, where there is zero interaction.

I’m going to leave you with one final statistic, but it’s not quite on topic — 14 per cent of takeout and delivery orders are placed over the phone. This old-school technology remains as an ideal way to engage with clients one-on-one. It is a way for independents to compete against the chains, which are less likely to provide this option. Make certain your phone number is up to date on your website and that you have somebody answering the phone and/or checking messages diligently. I’m a regular user of digital-ordering platforms, but this is the way I place orders with my favourite local restaurant. I think we both appreciate the human interaction it provides. – BY VINCE SGABELLONE

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