How digitally savvy restaurants are improving their mobile apps

Photo courtesy of Chipotle Mexican Grill

Does your restaurant’s mobile app allow customers to schedule an order for the future? Can they customize their meal? Can they track its status in real time?

If so, good news: according to a new report from tech researcher Incisiv, you have what are considered table stakes for a solid digital control experience. But you could still be behind the curve.

Incisiv studied the apps and websites of 100 restaurant brands to determine which major chains are leading the way in terms of digital experience. The difference between the top performers and the rest of the pack is that the leaders offer both basic functions as well as unique features that can enhance the customer experience.

Here’s a look at six of those extra bells and whistles from channels that are above their digital games, according to Incisiv’s 2022 Digital Maturity Benchmark report.

Availability of menu items

Many restaurants offer online ordering, but few let customers know if what they’re ordering is actually available. Of the chains studied by Incisiv, only 16% offer visibility into what is in stock. This feature is arguably more important than ever given the supply chain issues that have made stock-outs commonplace.

Starbucks is a chain that breaks the mold here. The coffee giant’s app and website include calls when a product is sold out or unavailable in that store.

Starbucks websiteThe Starbucks app and website indicate when an item is sold out.

Check-in for pickup

Only 12% of restaurants allow customers to notify the restaurant of their arrival to pick up an order. But the option could shorten wait times and make customers feel like their food is freshly prepared, Incisiv noted.

Chick-fil-A’s app, for example, has an “I’m here” button that customers can press when they arrive at the restaurant, alerting staff to prepare the order.

Menu filters

Customers are increasingly looking for menu items that meet certain dietary or allergy guidelines. The restaurants did not necessarily make it easy for them. Only 5% of brands allow customers to filter their menus based on their nutritional preferences, Incisiv found.

Last summer, Chipotle Mexican Grill launched a tool that lets customers do just that. Users can apply various filters, including vegetarian, vegan, paleo, and keto, as well as ingredients they want to avoid, such as gluten. The app will only show them items that match those specs.

Chipotle websiteChipotle Nutrition Preferences Filter

Contactless delivery

The ability for a customer to tell a delivery driver how to drop off their meal is a common feature on third-party delivery apps, but only about 30% of restaurants offer contactless delivery on their own ordering channels, according to Incisiv. Even fewer (8%) allow customers to enter specific details about where food should be left.

Sweetgreen is one of those few. The Salad Chain app allows customers to select detailed drop-off options, such as “meet at door”, “meet outside” or “leave at door”, and also has a notes where customers can include a locker security code or other deposit information.

Exclusive menu items

Restaurants often struggle to get customers to order directly from their own app/website rather than a third-party aggregator. One of the ways they can encourage the direct route is by offering items through this channel that customers can’t get anywhere else. But only 5% of brands currently offer products only online, according to Incisiv.

Chipotle has done this with many of its new menu items, and Taco Bell’s app has a special section for “online exclusives,” which includes the Quesarito and the customizable My Cravings box.

Taco Bell websiteTaco Bell’s online-only menu

Feedback tools

According to Incisiv, only 14% of customers file a complaint directly with the restaurant.

Many more (38%) choose to air their grievances publicly, on social media and other platforms. This may be because many restaurants don’t allow digital customers to leave reviews. Thirty-five percent allow customers to provide feedback on the app itself, while only 11% offer the option to leave pickup/delivery feedback or make suggestions. Tim Hortons offers all three.

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Casey J. Nelson