3 ways restaurants can navigate pandemic consumer behaviour

By Mike Wilson

The last two years have challenged restaurants with evolving safety concerns, rules, and diner behaviour and preferences. While sales were down 29 per cent entering 2021, they’re expected to increase 21 per cent in 2022, potentially reaching pre-pandemic levels.

Restaurants must continue to be nimble, responsive, and creative to survive and thrive. For many, that will mean continuing to refine off-premises service processes to take advantage of the continued high demand for takeout and drive-thru options, while also considering new marketing strategies, technologies, and messaging.

How can foodservice businesses ensure they’re reaching as many customers as possible? Here are a few approaches to consider.

Optimize drive-thru and curbside pickup processes

Many QSRs would agree that off-premise service has been the MVP of the pandemic, making up 83 per cent of all foodservice visits in Canada. Takeout accounts for 46 per cent of traffic, and drive-thru 28 per cent of visits. Thirty per cent of Canadians aged 18-34 say they’re making off-premises orders more often than before the pandemic, and 32 per cent say they do so because of the amenities that have made it easier.

But consumer enthusiasm for off-premises options comes with expectations. When restaurants rushed to add or expand takeout and drive-thru options two years ago, kinks were expected — for example, in 2021, time spent waiting in a drive-thru increased while order accuracy decreased.

It’s worthwhile for restaurants to address the friction in your takeout process now, whether or not off-premises orders continue at the same rate in future years. Customers turned off by a poor curbside pick-up experience will be less likely to dine there in the future, while a customer who had a positive experience may bring a group of friends on the next occasion.

First, fine-tune your process for precision and speed. Then, consider the technology available to help ease the takeout process for patrons and streamline incoming orders for staff.

Not every restaurant will want to offer its own ordering app, but it can help drive customer satisfaction. Some apps available to restaurants can use opt-in GPS tracking to prompt the restaurant to start preparing an order when a driver is within 1,000 feet. For quick-service establishments, applications like this can enable food to be delivered to drivers within two minutes.

Offering live chat is another way to improve customer satisfaction, according to a study from Simplr. Almost all of the QSRs that received high ratings (98 per cent) in the study had easy-to-find support channels, but just 11 per cent of QSRs have adopted live chat in their apps.

Other innovative ways to reduce bottlenecks include taking orders directly from customers in their cars using handheld devices for inputting orders and processing payments. Smart menu boards and artificial intelligence (AI) solutions are designed to increase accuracy and how much customers spend by suggesting menu items based on the time of day or weather conditions.

Also in the mix are touchless payment methods, such as paying in-app or tap-to-go payment systems, which consumers have indicated they want to keep using. In fact, 70 per cent of Gen Z and 74 per cent of Millennials say they plan to continue using them.

Shaving seconds off wait and transaction times can be the difference between a hungry driver choosing your restaurant or heading elsewhere.

Invest in more targeted marketing strategies

Restaurants should pay attention to changes in commuting patterns, with many consumers maintaining work-from-home or hybrid schedules. Only half of Canadians working from home anticipate returning to an office regularly in 2022. They also seem to have embraced this change, with 61 per cent saying they prefer working from home.

We can’t predict how much the shift in travel habits will stick, but there are always potential customers passing your establishment that don’t know about you yet.

One way to reach people on the move is through digital advertising. Opt-in, location-based ads in apps can alert consumers to amenities near them and make your restaurant part of their consideration set. These can be ads that are activated when a car comes to a stop, such as at a red light, so as to not be distracting. In some applications, location-based advertising can work with traditional out-of-home (OOH) advertising such as billboards to amplify the message, with drivers being delivered in-app ads when they’re in a certain proximity to a billboard.

These approaches, along with more traditional marketing strategies, can be a useful addition to your toolbox and a strategy to reach consumers at the moment they’re deciding the stops they’ll make during a journey.

Pivot messaging to reach new customers

As consumers mix up their routines, there’s an opportunity to reach new customers with messaging that wouldn’t have resonated a few years ago.

Promotions at non-traditional hours can be a way to encourage people to add your restaurant to new habits. For example, people might be looking for coffee outside the once-typical morning commute or they might be looking for a healthy meal on the way home from the gym in the middle of the day rather than in the evening. Waze research found that coffee shops see more consistent traffic all day, while quick-service restaurants see more navigations between 1 and 4 p.m. and 7 and 10 p.m.

It’s also important to remember those workers who are still heading to the office every day or a few days a week. Restaurants should aim to remind returning workers of their former favourites while showcasing new offerings and hours.

It remains a challenging time for the foodservice industry, but we have reasons to be excited for the new possibilities in 2022. As consumers continue to develop their habits and preferences, businesses must be diligent about adapting and innovating to make the dining experience as smooth and accessible as possible.

Mike Wilson is Head of Industry for Waze’s Restaurants vertical, as well as serving as the Canadian Country Manager. His team is responsible for partnering with over 400 brands on the Waze platform, including Wendy’s, Starbucks, McDonald’s, and many small and medium-sized restaurants across North America.