Current Pandemic Shifts and Consumer Behavior
The current social distancing paradigm brought on by COVID-19 has dramatically impacted the entire food services sector. Quick-service restaurants (QSRs) in particular have been forced to quickly shift their business models to focus on health and safety measures for their staff and guests, as well as optimize or reinvent their menu offerings for drive-thru, home delivery, take-away, and parking lot/curb-side pickup.
Many households are now opting to prepare and cook meals at home instead of venturing out for fear of virus transmission. This is also due to regional ‘Stay-in-Place’ regulations and the fact that much of the public is now working from home.
While some QSRs have had to rely on drive-thru or third-party delivery services, others have been able to capitalize on their ‘owned’ delivery services. For example, pizza QSRs are growing in volume and share of total market given their familiarity using their own branded delivery systems. In order to maintain brand image, other QSRs rely on their curbside or mobile pickup options combined with aggregated delivery systems using contactless ordering methods along with safe packaging and handling protocols.
However, ordering and delivery methods are not the only aspect of the QSR industry that have changed forever. Some QSRs have also opted to streamline their menus to offer only the best-selling, easily prepared items to ensure logistical efficiency. Returning to traditional day part menus that restrict certain items to a specific time and eliminate offers such as all-day breakfast are now the norm.
The “New” Normal
The shifting QSR business model and changing guest behaviors adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting and dramatic impact as we move to the ‘new’ normal. These will include:
- An absolute focus on food safety with expanded cleaning and sanitization processes for all QSR locations, products and packaging
- Improved health and safety protocols for all staff and guests
- An ongoing focus on value menu offerings
- Reliance and expanded adoption of delivery services – either QSR ‘owned’ or via an established aggregator (i.e. UberEats, GrubHub)
- A touchless (contactless) customer service experience for ordering, payment and delivery
- A shift to greater use of drive-thru and pick-up window options, including drive-thru only locations
- Growth of in-vehicle parking lot consumption to replace dine-in
- Development of improved take-out and delivery packaging options to increase the quality of food & beverages
QSR Post-pandemic: How to Win:
As we move towards a post-pandemic environment, focusing on the following initiatives will be of critical importance:
Enhanced Mobile App & Online Ordering and Payment:
QSRs must strive for ease of use in all aspects of their mobile & online ordering and payment process balanced with the communication needs of menu breadth and ongoing guest loyalty programs.
Optimizing Menu Board Design & Messaging:
With the continued reliance on drive-thru and pick-up window services, QSRs must optimize menu board designs and messaging to drive operational efficiency while maintaining the guest experience. Menu boards are a great tool to communicate brand image and value meal offerings and are a critical touchpoint on the QSR path to purchase.
Increased Adoption of Parking Lot/Curb Side pick-up:
An increasing number of guests will have a new preference for in-vehicle parking lot pickup, driven by their behaviors during the pandemic. The convenience of having food delivered to the car may become the new “in-restaurant” experience as guests consume their food and beverages while parked safely and isolated in their car.
Repurposing Dining Room Area Designs:
QSRs will need to divide their dining room spaces into separate areas that facilitate physical distancing. Decisions will have to be made by specific store locations based on regional regulations, guest traffic, and logistical feasibility.
Local Community & Geo-Targeted Marketing Focus:
QSRs should not adopt a single national strategy, but rather customize their offerings by each regional geography or restaurant location. They must also make responsible marketing strategy and operational decisions based on the needs and requirements of their local community.
Explorer Research has the expertise and capabilities to assist with the optimized design and implementation of customized solutions for each of these key initiatives.
Chris Whitaker is a Partner at Explorer Research. Chris has over 30 years of marketing, sales and research experience including packaged goods, pharmaceutical, financial services and Business to Business. Prior to joining Explorer, Chris was the Senior Vice President of Client Service at OSL Marketing. Chris has also held senior level positions at Nabisco, Catelli and Kraft.