Today’s consumers live very busy lives; they want products and services faster, closer, with less hassle, and without compromising the quality experience.
‘Convenience’ is a macro trend that has been influencing us for some time, long before the pandemic arrived. The convergence of instant access to information, technology, and the intense appetite for instant gratification has brought the convenience mentality to unanticipated levels; this convergence has also contributed to the Google effect (forgetting information that can be easily found online) and the Amazon effect (the large shift from brick-and-mortar stores to online shopping). This convergence is now fully underway and redefining the dining experience landscape.
As we’ve progressed though the last two years of the pandemic, consumer behaviours have not-so-subtly shifted. By necessity, how consumers used to buy products and services has been altered, and likely permanently. This is especially true for the restaurant industry, which was one of the hardest-hit sectors.
Mandatory shutdowns and reduced customer capacity limits came with the first wave, forcing many franchisors and franchisees to re-imagine their business models. This was done at a blistering-fast pace to retain market share amid the massive increase in online shopping and last mile delivery that came with the pandemic.
Reflecting on the progressive pandemic waves that crashed upon us, if we look hard enough, we can see a silver lining to the pain the restaurant industry, and many others, suffered. The food industry was given an incredibly rare gift: consumers continued to buy, despite massive disruption to service levels and even quality levels. Most consumers wanted to support their local businesses and, for a time, were incredibly tolerant. This gift of loyalty and tolerance enabled franchise systems to experiment in real-time and innovate at an incredible pace.
System innovations, which might normally take three to five years to implement, were developed, rolled out, and optimized in under 12 months. Best-in-class franchisors led their categories by working closely with their franchisees to redefine how to maintain enough of their core business model, while experimenting around the edges and testing new processes, new technologies, and new ways to engage their customer base, etc.
A few core objectives were to provide a more convenient experience, retain existing customers and protect business volume, and capture new customers disappointed by experiences with less effective competitors.
As with all experiments, some things worked, others things didn’t. For the first few months, consumers were very tolerant of how their experience with their favourite brands was evolving. Many franchisors quickly figured things out and were executing brilliantly to achieve the above-mentioned objectives. Slightly less-innovative franchise systems were watching closely and then started adopting ideas from their competitors, While they lost some early ground, they were able to recapture most of their customer base. Some franchisors and franchisees failed to adapt, or only did so minimally, and lost market share to those systems that did.
Last year saw signs of shifting consumer loyalty; while they were relatively loyal in 2020, by mid-2021, enough franchisors had developed and proven very effective ways of meeting new consumer demands, and in so doing, redefined what they came to expect. At some point last year, consumers’ expectations had reached a reset point; the changes in the customer experience that were experimental in 2020 became core expectations, and consumers were voting with their food budget and purchasing from the brands who could meet the new expectations.
There are several “experience catalysts” that reshaped expectations; and more importantly, going forward, franchisors and franchisees need to consider these catalysts to ensure customers receive what their brands promise.
Shifting from in-person dining to grab-and-go was amongst the earliest innovations. Consumers wanted to stay loyal to their brands and wanted to support their local franchisees and staff. Early issues were experienced as franchisees had to modify their menu offerings and figure out new staffing levels. Logjams happened; some consumers took a long time to decide what to order; consumers were waiting too long for their food; payment terminals had limited range away from their base, etc. Innovations were numerous, including pick-up lanes, runners bringing the food to the door or car, signal boosters for payment terminals, etc. Fortunately, most franchisees now have this well-in-hand.
When ordering something online, the new consumer expectation is to be able to review the menu on a tablet or laptop, order what they want, decide to pick it up or have it delivered, and then pay for it, all without having to wait to talk with someone… and they want to do it all in under three minutes.
Customers want a seamless ordering and payment processing experience from the closest location, with reasonable and predictable wait times. And the next time they come back to the site, they expect their ordering history to be visible, and maybe even auto-populate their last order.
Fully integrated systems
Many franchisors rapidly adapted their internal systems to enable online ordering and then integrated that with back-of-house ordering and food prep. This end-to-end integration enables the customer to see a precise time window for when their food will be ready for pick-up. This is the new gold-standard experience. The industry is seeing more digital menus and even virtual ordering for dine-in restaurants, so the evolution of the customer expectation is still progressing.
In addition to engaging interactive websites, some brands created their own proprietary apps, duplicating the interactive website experience for mobile devices. Many began utilizing third-party apps that integrated most of the services mentioned previously and, even now, still provide a relatively seamless consumer experience. Utilization of apps is the new minimum-standard experience.
Last mile delivery
Food operators can do absolutely everything right—give the consumer a great ordering experience, then produce the food quickly and at a quality level above the brand’s promise. However, if the last mile delivery is substandard, it impacts and erodes the consumer’s experience, sometimes significantly.
While the convenience and technology of all the delivery companies (Uber Eats, DoorDash, Grubhub, etc.) has helped sustain the food industry through the pandemic, these companies all share one weakness that is the biggest variable to the quality of the customer experience; and that is wait time.
All restaurants using food delivery apps are at the mercy of the driver. To maximize their opportunity and reduce their costs, some drivers are motivated to grab as many orders as they can, sometimes waiting for additional orders or picking up orders from multiple restaurants while on the way. I have personally received food 45 minutes after driver pick-up, when the restaurant is only 12 minutes away.
Another common occurrence is the driver doesn’t knock or wait for someone to answer the door; the food sits outside while the customer gets more frustrated, thinking they are still waiting for their food. Regardless of the reason, if the food delivery takes too long, quality is compromised. Does the consumer just suck it up and blame the delivery company? Maybe. But likely, most people assign fault to both the restaurant and the driver; the next time they order food, they will think twice about ordering from that restaurant again, even though they did everything right.
The new flex-hours landscape
Franchisees who relied on Monday-to-Friday office worker density to drive their businesses are still wading through uncertainty. The debate rages on about how the corporate work world will return to working at the office. Some experts believe some form of flex hours is here to stay (i.e., three days in-office and two days at home), while some with more optimism say full-time office work will return soon.
That said, franchisees should plan for flex-hours for some time to come; locations that relied on high-density office towers for foot traffic pre-pandemic should seek alternative ways to rebuild traffic. They should work closely with their franchisors to figure out how to serve those working at home. These are likely going to be different customers—the pre-pandemic office workers who are working part of the week far away from your restaurant are not going to visit on their at-home days. There is likely an entirely new base of customers who are also now working from home some days, and who live close enough to your restaurant that you can serve them a few times a month.
The human connection
As we return to a relative normal, we rejoice at the return to in-restaurant dining and the return to the core business model’s unit economics. Though franchisors and franchisees must recognize that it will be a while before a certain percentage of the population will return to pre-pandemic consumer behaviour; this group represents a significant enough percentage of the market share opportunity, thus it is important to continue to serve them and focus on improving their experience. In addition to topping-up in-person dining revenues, these people might become the most loyal customers whose purchases keep the franchisees’ bills paid, should we experience future pandemic waves.
If franchisors and their franchisees want to retain and gain market share, they need to maintain the integrity of the customer experience that comes with their brand promise. This means embracing these drivers of evolving consumer expectations and adjusting/optimizing accordingly. They need to remain highly aware of their customer experience by monitoring online reviews and customer feedback channels and innovate in response.
The alternative is to continue to risk falling onto the ‘missed the boat’ list of companies no CEO or franchisee wants to be on. The hotel industry lost massive market share to Airbnb; Uber is doing the same to the taxi industry.
If you think this “missing the boat” phenomenon can’t happen to a franchise system, you would be wrong. A global powerhouse brand in 25 countries with over 9000 stores landed on this list—Blockbuster. The message is clear: innovate to meet the evolving customer experience or perish.
As a 30-year veteran of the franchise industry, Gary Prenevost is a franchise matchmaking expert. His upcoming book on achieving next-level growth and top performance in franchise ownership will be published in late 2022.