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How digitally-savvy restaurants are improving their mobile apps

Features like out-of-stock alerts and exclusive items separate brands like Starbucks and Taco Bell from the rest of the pack, according to a new report from Incisiv.
Chipotle mobile app
Photograph 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: You’ve got what are considered table stakes for a solid digital ordering experience, according to a new report from technology researcher Incisiv. But you might still be behind the curve.

Incisiv studied the apps and websites of 100 restaurant brands to determine which big chains are leading the way in terms of the 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 chains that are on top of their digital games, according to Incisiv’s 2022 Digital Maturity Benchmark report.

Menu item availability

A lot of restaurants offer online ordering, but few let customers know whether what they’re ordering is actually available. Among chains studied by Incisiv, just 16% offer visibility into what’s in stock. This feature is arguably more important than ever given supply chain problems that have made out-of-stocks commonplace.

Starbucks is one chain breaking the mold here. The coffee giant’s app and website include callouts when a product is either sold out or not available at that store. 

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

Check-in for pickup

Just 12% of restaurants allow customers to let the restaurant know when they’ve arrived to pick up an order. But the option could shorten wait times and give guests the impression that their food is freshly made, Incisiv noted.

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

Menu filters

Customers are increasingly looking for menu items that meet certain dietary or allergy guidelines. Restaurants have not necessarily made it easy on them. Just 5% of brands allow customers to filter their menus based on their nutrition preferences, Incisiv found.

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

Chipotle websiteChipotle's Nutrition Preferences filter

Contactless delivery

The ability for a customer to instruct a delivery driver how to drop off their meal is a common function 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 precise details about where the food should be left.

Sweetgreen is one of those few. The salad chain’s app allows customers to select detailed dropoff options, like “meet at door,” “meet outside” or “leave at door,” and also has a notes section where the customers can include a locker security code or other dropoff 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 way they can incentivize the direct route is by offering items through that channel that guests can’t get anywhere else. But only 5% of brands currently offer online-only products, 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 lodge complaints directly with the restaurant.

Many more (38%) choose to air their grievances publicly, on social media and other platforms. This could be because a lot of restaurants don’t have a way for digital customers to leave feedback. Thirty-five percent allow guests to give feedback about 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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