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Ask a room full of restaurant chain executives to name the model they’re following today, and you won’t hear Starbucks, Panera or McDonald’s. You won’t even get a name from their industry. The business that’s changing the restaurant game by giving the business a new model is an unlikely candidate: Amazon.

After spending three days at the Restaurant Leadership Conference, a gathering of top chain executives hosted by Restaurant Business’ parent, Winsight, one underlying theme was clear: The e-commerce master is their modern-day, first-to-follow model. When asked during different tech-focused sessions about the brands operators admire the most, many RLC panelists named Amazon. The interesting thing is that it’s not a beautiful site focused on the visual aspect. “It is the ugliest website that exists,” said Gail Seanor, senior director of marketing technology for TGI Fridays. “But everyone uses it.”

So what is it that restaurant execs are so envious of? The user experience. “Retail and e-commerce are leading the way in the UX purchase model,” said Brooks Goldade, head of digital guest experience for Buffalo Wild Wings. And, he added, customers today have set expectations on what an e-commerce experience should be like from any source—they don’t see restaurants as any different from sites like Amazon when making purchases.

That means there’s opportunity to borrow from the strategies Amazon uses to drive food sales, especially in the off-premise market. Up next, Jerry Shen, director of digital marketing for Blaze Pizza, thinks operators could nudge customers to complete purchases on their own e-commerce platforms, be it web or mobile. When an Amazon customer drops an item into their cart, for example, messages pop up about that specific item. If a customer starts a group order in Blaze’s app, the chain could gently prod the user to complete an unfinished order. Or if a customer has saved an order in the past, the platform could be automated to prompt repeat orders, he suggests.

Even more, said Seanor, with all of the stats being collected from diners’ digital orders, operators need to find a way to tease what she calls the “next best option,” not what they’ve already purchased. If someone buys a sleeping bag, she said as an example, they should be shown a tent next. At this point, operators aren’t there yet; they are looking at ripping off the Amazon model, but are not sure exactly how to translate the learnings from the e-commerce giant. Right now, even the most advanced brands are still trying to resell the sleeping bag.  

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