Order up! Key actions to maximize the take-out demand

Americans love food.

It’s as simple as that. And takeout and delivery have always been an important part of that love affair.  Before the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the US in March, the NPD Group reported that restaurant takeout and delivery accounted for approximately 70% of quick-service restaurant sales and 10% of full-service restaurant sales.  Techcrunch estimates the takeout and delivery market to be a $70B in sales, with 13% coming from digital sales pre-pandemic.  Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the restaurant industry, consumers’ use of takeout and delivery to feed their cravings or quickly fill their bellies has grown. A series of Gallup surveys show a 69% increase in takeout and a 105% increase in curbside pickup from March to May. This trend is likely to continue.  A recent ENGINE survey found that more than two-thirds of consumers will choose curbside, delivery or carry-out after the pandemic subsides. 

To maximize the opportunities, QSR and full-service restaurants need to ensure that the customer experience is optimized, regardless of how the customer experiences the brand.  However, there are important generational differences that brands must consider when planning and implementing service quality improvements.  Based on survey research conducted by ENGINE, 1 in 4 Gen Z consumers see a better value in delivery, curbside and takeout than dining in a restaurant.  With close to 70 million US consumers who are driving trends in all industries, it is important to ensure that Gen Z continues to get the value from alternative options.  On the other hand, Boomers, are more concerned than younger generations about a limited variety from takeout and delivery compared with in-room dining.  Fending off this headwind will be important to acceptance of this valuable new channel among a key segment – 70% of Boomers ate or picked up meals in the past month according to an ENGINE survey fielded in early August.

What should restaurants do to ensure customer needs are met and orders keep flowing? Brand experience firm Big Red Rooster recommends key actions restaurants can take to keep sales coming in.

  1. Make safety visible – according to research conducted by ENGINE, the two precautions restaurant customers overwhelmingly cite as critical to helping them feel safe are masks and sanitizing surfaces.  Making these steps visual and central to the customer experience will help customers feel safer. Earlier in the pandemic more Boomers were ardent in their need to see staff sanitizing surfaces and wearing masks. Over time, Gen X’s desire to see more cleaning and mask wearing has increased to a level comparable with Boomers. And while Gen Z and Millennials are somewhat less likely to need to see sanitation practices and masks than their older counterparts a majority of younger consumers do need to see these behaviors at restaurants to feel safe.
  2. Maximize the pick-up experience – restaurants should consider expanding drive-thru and curbside options to ensure quick and safe service.  For example, passenger side drive-thru options can provide additional commercial space within the current physical footprint.  Responsive curbside pick-up leveraging technology can create a more seamless customer experience, as well as opportunities for spontaneous upsell – are you sure you don’t want fries with that? Curbside has gained importance among Boomers during the pandemic. Ensuring that your experience design and execution take Boomers needs into account will be a key to success.
  3. Optimize the space you have – reimagining part of the dining area or entry-way for contactless pick-up can help free-up staff and create a more streamlined experience for customers. Brands should consider “dark” kitchens, with no dining option, to better manage the delivery and takeout volume. However, brands should not move in this direction blindly. Gen Z are more cautious about restaurants where dine-in is not an option.  According to a recent ENGINE survey, 64% of Gen Z consumers report that having a dine-in option is important when choosing a restaurant for take-out or delivery. To ensure Gen Z is comfortable ordering from this newer format, the benefits of these kitchens within the brand portfolio will need to be clearly communicated to consumers. When communicated well, brands can expect to benefit from acceptance among both Gen Z and Boomers, who are concerned about the (perceived) lack of variety with takeout and delivery.
  4. Bring the brand to the consumer – Currently, only about one-third of consumers trust that restaurants and bars can keep them safe according to an ENGINE survey of US consumers.  And half of consumers report that they expect to be avoiding crowds one year from now.  To thrive, brands need to establish new ways to bring their value proposition to life for customers. This is especially important among Gen X and Boomers are most likely to believe they will be avoiding crowds in the future. To combat this, brands should look for creative ways to bring some of the brand experience into the home through meal kits, redesigned packaging and integrated marketing.  Furthermore, with outside experiences considerably safer than inside activities, brands should look for ways to make the brand more “mobile,” bringing the brand to the consumer through events, mobile branded out-posts, such as pick-up kiosks, and branded food trucks.

The future of dining is likely going to include more at home and alternate location dining.  Brands that are quick to pivot to the changing needs and wants of consumers during these dynamic times will have an advantage through the pandemic and should be in a stronger position to adjust post-pandemic as consumers’ needs evolve.  As we have seen with other seminal events such as the Great Recession, behavior modifications made today are most likely to endure among younger generations, who are only gaining in spending power and influence.

Written by David Albert, Managing Director at ENGINE Insights.