A few weeks ago, I looked at some of the top elements QSRs will need in order to stay ahead in the current craze for off-premises meal formats. “More curbside pickup spots” was top of the list, but of late I’m starting to think restaurants will need more than just a parking spot to make their curbside business competitive in 2021. They’ll need to fully automate those last few minutes of the process.
That thought was prompted by new survey data I got this week from restaurant tech company Bluedot. Among other things, the survey found that customers expect to be automatically checked in after placing a curbside order via a mobile app and arriving at the restaurant in the aforementioned parking spot.
Few restaurants, including most major chains, actually do this right now. Most require some form of manual(ish) check in, usually via opening the app and hitting a button, scanning a QR code at the parking spot, or, in some cases, sending a text message.
At the moment, the only major restaurant chains to fully automate the curbside process are Panera, which integrated a geofencing feature into its app last year, and El Pollo Loco. In these cases, geofencing technology can identify a user upon their arrival (the user will have agreed to give identifiers like their vehicle make and model or license plate number) and automatically alert the restaurant. The customer does nothing, save roll down the window and take the bag of food.
Geofencing is typically harder to implement and costlier than using, say, a QR code-based checkin process. Plus, most of the big changes have been busy of late building out sophisticated reward programs or four-lane drive-thrus. Fully automated curbside pickup is something of an afterthought at the moment.
But speed of service is currently a major problem and a major opportunity for restaurants. Case in point: Bluedot’s survey found that across order channels, including curbside, drive-thru, and regular ol’ pickup, that 77 percent of respondents said they would leave if the wait time was too long. The amount of time a customer is willing to wait has dropped to just six minutes, down from 10 minutes in August.
Given that, it’s only a matter of time before more restaurants start to automate that last step of the curbside pickup process. It may only shave seconds off the process, but in today’s restaurant biz, those seconds add up quickly.
But to clarify: “restaurants” in this context unfortunately means the big chains, those with the money and resources to spend on incremental tech developments. That leaves out a huge number of businesses just trying to survive the remainder of the pandemic.
That gives restaurant tech companies a major opportunity to help. With the future of the dining room still in question, many tech companies have turned to building out back-of-house and/or off-premises-focused tools and features. Those that cater to smaller chains and independent restaurants should consider the automation of curbside pickup as part of their future plans.
Restaurant Tech ‘Round the Web
Restaurant tech writer and friend of The Spoon Kristen Hawley’s latest newsletter addresses one of the biggest questions in the restaurant biz right now: do third-party delivery services really help local restaurants? The answer, as it turns out, is not so black and white.
Elsewhere, the folks at Restaurant Dive break down the types of assistance these third-party delivery services are providing restaurants. The piece provides a clear, well-organized picture of who’s doing what and how much it is actually helping small businesses.
Finally, there really is a Taco Bell with four drive-thru lanes. Or there will be soon, according to plans from Minnesota-based Taco Bell franchisee Border Foods. Plans surfaced this week for a new store prototype that would feature one traditional drive-thru lane, three for pickup orders, and no dining room.