When it comes to the most selective diners, restaurateurs may have only one chance to deliver a great online ordering experience. In fact, more than a third of all adults — and half of adults aged 18-34 — say they are now more likely to use restaurant technology than they were two years ago, according to this year’s NRA Technology Study. The study also revealed that new guests are contemplating entering your digital storefront every day.
Likewise, more investment is flowing into consumer-facing technologies than ever before, particularly around the front-end experience and integrations with the kitchen and other restaurant systems. But the work doesn't end there. All the energy spent on creating a beautiful interface and perfectly synchronized menu to wow your guests can fall apart in a matter of seconds if the in-store pickup experience goes awry.
Restaurant brands should treat digital entry points with the same focus on operational excellence they strive for with orders placed within their four walls. The good news is there have been lots of lessons learned about potential pitfalls in this realm, so we’ve put together a list of the top four "worst practices" involving your food pick-up operation as well as a "fix" for each one in order to help operations teams deliver a stellar experience through your brand’s digital "doorway."
Pick-up practices to avoid and their fixes:
- Don’t leave customers hanging – at the register or host stand.
The fix: Avoid “duty doubling” at digital ordering pick-up stations.
This can be one of the most frustrating things about ordering online. Brands that leave customers standing unattended at the counter, and unable to gain the attention of anyone to process the request, leave customers – or potential customers – feeling that online orders are a low priority.
But this often occurs as the result of "duty doubling" at peak times when the person designated to attend the digital order station moves over to help with in-store check-out, or the designated digital ordering manager moves over to a second prep line to help with orders or fill requests made by an early-arriving customer.
Patience dwindles quickly when customers, who typically expect to save time by ordering online, have to wait. The pre-digital effects of this fact were made clear in the 2011 study, How Much is a Reduction of Your Customers’ Wait Worth?, which examined how customers respond to waiting in a drive-thru line.
Specifically, the study said, "Our results confirm the belief expressed by industry experts, that in the fast food drive-thru industry, customers trade off price and waiting time. More interestingly, our estimates indicate that consumers attribute a very high cost to the time they spend waiting."
Avoid this type of situation by creating a contingency plan for instances where a customer arrives early or makes a special request. This one small preparation can be key to keeping pickup operations riding smoothly on the rails.
- Don’t leave customers hanging in the drive-thru or in-store check-out line.
The fix:Designate clear paths for pickup in-store, at the curb or through the drive-thru.
Frequent digital orderers often gripe about ordering their meals and then being forced to wait in the line that they pre-ordered in order to avoid, like those for online ordering or drive-thru customers who did not order ahead.
One frequent online orderer recently told me, for instance, that one restaurant she visits now has a longer online order pickup line than the one for customers ordering in-store. She also noted that in-store orderers were actually being served and leaving the restaurant before she could retrieve her pre-placed order.
That’s why this fix stipulates that you have not only a physically clear path for these guests, but also a well-staffed path where employees can ensure orders come with a promise of no waiting. That also means that for drive-thru service, curbside parking spots for parallel processing are a must.
- Leaving customers guessing about how to retrieve orders.
The fix: Clear signs that point the way for order pickup.
Clear, designated digital ordering storage and retrieval is useless if customers can’t find it. To avoid this, use post-order messaging to explain what will happen within your site/app and then send an order confirmation email.
At the store, install clear overhead signs to guide customers to their order retrieval points. Consider even using these signs as built-in to-go program ads, as brands like Panera, Le Pain Quotidien and sweetgreen do. And for multi-location brands pre-consider the best sign placement for various restaurant layouts to enable smooth pickup flow at all locations.
- Avoid overcrowded restaurant sites that disrupt foot traffic flow.
The fix: Let software be your bouncer.
Best practices dictate that lines be completely separated with designated VIP digital ordering pickup counters. Starbucks, for instance, has instituted an express format store that keeps entering-exiting customers moving in a circular rotation with customer interaction happening as guests move into stores.
SaaS platforms can help handle each store’s specific location and flow challenges by things like order throttling to remedy problems in this realm.
Take time also to monitor peak periods to answer questions like:
• How many people are in-store for prep line orders at specific times of day?
• How crowded are stores at any given time?
• What adjustments can be made to order flow to meet demand during busy periods?
All of the previously delineated challenges are well served by a great cross-functional plan that engages everyone from operations and marketing, to IT stakeholders. Then, perform some rapid testing pre-launch and even consider adding a secret shopper program for year-round evaluations of your plan and troubleshooting pickup issues that can undermine the brand’s digital investments.