Digital Pickup Surges in the New Normal, Likely Beyond

In a world of mostly off-premises operations, drive-thrus are exceptionally busy, delivery is up but digital pickup may be the habit that sticks. 

Hope Neiman, the chief marketing officer at the data, ordering, kiosk and digital ordering advisory firm Tillster, said the outlet has been explosive for a lot of reasons, but the biggest from her perspective is more control over the experience. 

"When people get out of the house, they’re more apt to gang up their errands. It used to be I’d go to and from work every day," said Neiman. "Now, I’m going to go to the post office, something else and then pick up food. Pickup, not only is it less expensive, I’m more in control of the time. I know when I get there, they’re going to tell me when it’ll be ready and they’re not going to combine three orders."

In company data, she said she’s seen pickup expand 40 to 80 percent higher than delivery. That’s confirmed by other statistics as well. In a survey from data insights firm Sense360, more than half of consumers responded saying they have done pickup since the COVID-19 pandemic started and curbside pickup has been a big growth category. It remains at 8 percent of restaurant traffic in Sense360 data, and it’s especially utilized in the lunch and dinner daypart. App ordering is up for both.  

With the surge of new pickup traffic, consumers are getting used to the process and a more frictionless experience. Neiman said she’s seen four best practices that make for a good digital pickup experience. 

Mind the tech

"One of the things in our application if it’s not integrated in the point of sale, you can do it off a tablet, it also has an audible queue," said Neiman. "In the past, most people turned off the queue. Now that they want to be able to flag when an order comes in, we’ve seen increased utilization of the queue. It’s almost like that excitement of an order coming in." 

If it’s not integrated or audible for the staff, designating an employee to keep tabs on orders is wise—especially if the restaurant has shed staff at the counter. 

Explain the process

"One of the things we find so important is telling the guest what’s happening. For example, if you’re supposed to check in when you get there, being able to give that feedback that your item is in the kitchen and Joe will be bringing it out," said Neiman. "Those kinds of careful communications about what to expect and when to expect it are important."

Those messages are useful for orders made in an app or out. If instructions are unclear, customers tend to get in whatever line there is and potentially feel like they’ve wasted time when they could have just grabbed their order. It’s the same for curbside; without feedback from a geofenced notification, the customer will likely call from out front. 

Get the timing right

Gone, hopefully, are the days of every menu item getting a 15-minute countdown. Customers expect accurate timing, especially those that are cautious about being in a business because of COVID-19. Neiman said brands she’s helping are trying to get better. 

"They’re trying to be much more accurate than they used to be. That’s one thing people are really sensitive for. If my order says it’ll be ready at 7:34 p.m. and I show up at 7:35 p.m. and it’s not started, you get angry. The patience for that kind of stuff is waning," said Neiman. 

That dovetails with the aspect of controlling the time with big errand runs. You don’t want to be the reason the whole trip is out of whack. 

Be frictionless, but not cold

"One of the things we encourage is to be able to create moments of warmth. Some of that is the verbiage you’re using to let the guest know you’re bringing out the food and how you’re saying that," said Neiman. That’s true even behind a mask or behind a shelf. "Is someone smiling with their eyes? Those are all great, memorable moments that are different than before but are equally important when you’re thinking about where you want to order next." 

And while operators don’t need to be overly performative about it, the process of digital pickup can be a time to show the care by packing the bag carefully on the counter and thinking about the end experience as much as a dine-in experience. That’s not likely something they’ll get in delivery. 

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