'Order ahead' mobile option draws food orders - and some woes

For some time now, restaurant chains have been adding mobile order-ahead options, betting they'd be popular with their customers. But even they were caught off guard with just how big of a hit the technology is turning out to be.

TGI Fridays mixed up orders, and Starbucks struggled with overcrowding that scared off regular walk-in-and-pay customers. And that's likely just the beginning for a technology that's now really starting to catch on.

Researcher Crone Consulting estimates that in five years, half of all sales at quick-service chains will be placed digitally before the customer ever steps on the premises. Today, less than 10 per cent of these companies offer the mobile order-ahead feature.

So swift is the growth of the technology that chains are having to rethink the way they do business, from putting a guy at the front door to greet customers to adding extra grab-and-go parking spaces. Pizza Hut is retooling its app to include order histories and suggest popular sizes to speed up the process.

Fast-food chain Chick-fil-A already delivers orders kerbside at about a third of its locations, and is studying whether to let customers grab their grub using drive-through lanes.

Even mom-and-pop joints are jumping in: Eastman Egg, which runs three sandwich shops in Chicago and saw its monthly order-head sales rise 180 per cent in December from a year earlier, is installing separate pick-up stations for mobile orders. "Product, process and people have to be re-engineered to pull this off," says Mr Richard Crone, chief executive officer of the California-based consultancy.

Researcher Crone Consulting estimates that in five years, half of all sales at quick-service chains will be placed digitally before the customer ever steps on the premises. Today, less than 10 per cent of these companies offer the mobile order-ahead feature.

Order-ahead features can boost a store's capacity by 30 per cent, and if companies don't get it right, "we could see a bunch of stores actually going out of business".

Starbucks, an early pioneer of the technology, figured out the downside of not being prepared after it introduced the feature nationwide in late 2015. Order-ahead customers flooded some stores, making it look like lines were extra long.

Last quarter, mobile orders represented at least 20 per cent of sales during peak traffic times at nearly 1,200 Starbucks stores. A year ago, only 13 of the company's coffee houses could make that claim. Order-ahead apps drove 7 per cent of all transactions in the last quarter, double the figure a year earlier.

As walk-in customers look at the number of people hovering around the counter, it "might create a signal to them that they will have to wait to do their transaction", Mr Kevin Johnson, who will take over as Starbucks CEO next month, said on the company's quarterly earnings call on Jan 26. Outgoing CEO Howard Schultz added: "We're now laser-focused on fixing this problem."

The coffee chain's fixes include adding text-message notifications to alert customers when a mobile order is ready and hiring more baristas to ease congestion.

Adding headcount helped TGI Fridays overcome its rocky start, too. After launching the feature in September, some restaurants angered customers by mixing up to-go orders and digital sales, which now account for about 7 per cent of all orders.

The casual-dining chain hired a person at each location whose sole job it is to manage those orders by personally shepherding the food from kitchen to host stand, said vice-president of strategy and brand Sherif Mityas. The company is also experimenting with kerbside delivery and may make over its parking spaces to include two dedicated spots.

Moe's Southwest Grill is testing a second burrito-making line in some stores. Workers there would just handle digital, catering and delivery orders. At Moe's, digital orders are growing at about 20 per cent a year, said Mr Bruce Schroder, president of the fast-casual chain. "The guest wants convenience... quality and... efficiency," he said.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2017, with the headline ''Order ahead' mobile option draws food orders - and some woes'. Print Edition | Subscribe