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Starbucks, Panera lead the way in digital, report finds

The brands topped a new ranking of limited-service chains’ digital maturity.
Starbucks Digital
Photo courtesy of Starbucks

Starbucks has the most advanced digital capabilities of any limited-service restaurant chain in the U.S., according to a new report from technology research firm Incisiv.

Panera Bread, McDonald’s, McAlister’s Deli and Pizza Hut were also among the top digital performers in the ranking published last week.

The Limited Service Restaurant Digital Maturity Benchmark report analyzed the digital performance of 50 LSR chains across four categories: discovery, ordering, fulfillment and customer engagement—with a focus on mobile app capabilities.

Digital channels have become key for restaurants during the pandemic, and will continue to be an important area of investment for them: Incisiv predicted that more than half of all LSR sales will be digital by 2025. 

That said, the industry has a long way to go in terms of providing an excellent digital experience, Incisiv found, lagging behind retail. Customer satisfaction is low with pickup and delivery as well as customer engagement like personalization and loyalty, the researcher said—though restaurants have improved in those areas since the pandemic began.

“Restaurants and operators have had to turn on features more quickly than they’ve ever done before, but it’s still not where it needs to be, which is customer experience breaks at the point of pickup and delivery,” said Gaurav Pant, chief insights officer for Incisiv, during a webinar Thursday discussing the report. “If you’re not able to do it well once, what else is going wrong?”

Here’s a closer look at the leaders on Incisiv’s ranking:

No. 1: Starbucks

The Seattle-based coffee giant distinguished itself in the areas of customer engagement and discovery (or how easy it is for a guest to find the information they need when making a dining decision). Starbucks has one of the most popular restaurant loyalty apps, with more than 16 million active users, and the chain continues to invest in improvements to that platform. 

No. 2: Panera Bread

The sandwich chain’s ranking was buoyed by its fulfillment capabilities, and it also performed well in customer engagement and ordering. Pant said Panera has “come a long way” with its digital execution. The chain offers curbside pickup, delivery and catering, and has worked to streamline those services, adding things like geofencing technology that alerts staff when a customer has arrived.

No. 3: McDonald’s

The burger chain led the way in discovery and also impressed with its customer engagement, though it lagged in ordering and fulfillment. McDonald’s offers special deals for app users, and its website has detailed menu information and a nutrition calculator. And the chain is doubling down on its digital capabilities; it’s testing a loyalty program and will add delivery to its app, among other advances.

No. 4: McAlister’s Deli

Atlanta-based McAlister’s was recognized for its customer engagement and service, where it ranked alongside larger players such as Starbucks, McDonald’s and Dunkin’. The sandwich chain has a rewards program where guests earn points, and it revamped its app in February to allow for easier reordering and customization.

No. 5: Pizza Hut

The Yum Brands-owned chain excelled in ordering and fulfillment. That’s not necessarily surprising for a pizza chain, though it’s notable that the Hut outdid competitors Domino’s (No. 6) and Papa John’s (No. 15) on Incisiv’s list. 

Rounding out the top 10 were Domino’s, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Panda Express and Qdoba Mexican Eats.

Of the 50 chains Incisiv analyzed, 43 had an app and mobile ordering. Four had an app without mobile ordering, and three had no app. Brands that have apps but no ordering, such as Bojangles’ and Raising Cane’s, landed near the bottom of Incisiv’s ranking.

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