Q&A: The evolution of online ordering

Nov. 16, 2012

Online ordering has come a long way in just a few short years, and now even accounts for nearly 50 percent of some pizza chain sales. The service, while a perfect fit for delivery-heavy pizza joints, also now exists across all restaurant segments -- from sandwiches to burgers and donuts.

NetWaiter has been offering the service to restaurants since the early 2000s. One of the company's cofounders, Jared Shimoff, shared his thoughts on the current state of online ordering and his predictions for what will happen next.

Q: How has online ordering changed since it first appeared on the market?

Jared Shimoff: Initially, restaurant industry people viewed online ordering as an operational tool. Orders came in easily, you could free up employees from time spent on the phone, and order accuracy was greatly improved. Making your restaurant run more smoothly, though, was quickly eclipsed as people recognized the marketing assets of online ordering. Customers who ordered online were quickly enamored with the convenience. They ordered more often. The average order size was larger, too. An increase in ticket size of 10 percent to 20 percent is very common, and we have customers who tell us they see as much as 50 percent.

Q: What kind of involvement with online ordering is required by an owner or manager?

JS: It can vary. Like so many marketing tools, if you embrace online ordering and make it an integral part of your operation, sales will grow exponentially. We tell client restaurants that one of the biggest single outlets for promoting online ordering is their wait staff. Waiters and waitresses are the funnel of information between the restaurant and the customer. They have tremendous power to communicate the marketing message of a restaurant. At a minimum, a restaurant needs to post a link on their homepage that is very visible and accessible. This provides customers visiting the site the ability to easily order.

Q: How else do your NetWaiter restaurants promote online ordering?

JS: Messages printed on receipts are common. Table tents, in-restaurant signage, T-shirts, and QR codes are also popular. One of our clients posted a promotional sign somewhere in town each week the first month after they launched. All of the customers that found it and used the promotional code to place an order got entered into a drawing. The winners received online credit. Then there is social media: Twitter and Facebook are both big outlets for promoting online ordering.

Q: Can you tell us more about social media and online ordering?

JS: It's huge. In 2010, NetWaiter integrated Facebook into the ordering process. When a customer orders online from a restaurant using NetWaiter, they can click a Facebook icon to quickly login and complete their order. With the customer's permission, a post is made to their wall/timeline that lets their friends know about their recent order. The post includes the restaurant's logo and a link for the customer's friends to view their menu and also order themselves. Talk about great marketing that's free.

Q: What do you tell restaurateurs who fear online ordering will cannibalize their dine-in business?

JS: Not so. True online customers know they want, or need, to order their meal to-go. The decision to order takeout or delivery almost always comes before the decision on where to get it. We've had clients concerned about losing alcohol sales if they did more takeout business. The reality is – if a customer already knows they want takeout, they aren't going to buy alcohol anyway. If a restaurant isn't offering online ordering, they're probably losing business. Takeout customers will go to restaurants with a more convenient way to order and pay.

According to a study done last year, 60 percent of consumers who recently purchased takeout said if they had not done so on that occasion, they would most likely have made food at home and not purchased a meal (from the restaurant).

Our clients often report that once a takeout customer starts ordering online, they order more often because the technology is so convenient. If a restaurant makes it easy to order from them, customers will respond.

Q: What's on the horizon for restaurants and customers?

JS: There are a couple of things. The first is mobile ordering. While it's not new, restaurants can expect a much larger percentage of orders via Smartphone over the next few years. With more than 100 million Smartphones in the U.S., more customers have access, and are taking advantage, of the mobile ordering. We're committed to this shift in consumer habits. With NetWaiter, each restaurant gets a branded mobile version of their online site, making it very easy for customers to place orders from their Smartphones.

The second is social media. Look for it to continue to grow. Social media is how people communicate today. With services like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, social media can really help with 'word-of-mouth marketing.' It's something NetWaiter recognized years ago, but also something that restaurants have been using and will continue to use. Sending out a tweet or posting a message on Facebook with a link to place an order can really help build business.

Lastly, look for more restaurateurs to steer all of their takeout and delivery customers towards online ordering. Many owners now don't even want to take phone orders and are asking their customers instead to go online. There are many motives for this. One is operations -- it's a much easier way for restaurants to receive order information. More importantly, though, it's for revenue and marketing purposes. Good online systems provide restaurateurs a treasure trove of customer information, including ordering history and contact information. This information provides owners with powerful tools for future marketing efforts that they simply can't get over the phone.

Read more about online initiatives.

Topics: Customer Service / Experience , Marketing / Branding / Promotion , Online / Mobile / Social , Online Services , Operations Management

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