Shake Shack Uses Data To Provide Omnichannel Convenience, Create Playful Experiences

Gone are the days when people went to grocery stores to buy food to eat at home, they went to restaurants to eat a cooked meal brought to their table by a waiter and there was not much in between. In today’s connected economy, the eat category encompasses a far wider range of ways to eat three meals a day (or sometimes not eat them). Plus, the retail journey has become more expansive, with digital and physical channels working side by side and brands finding new ways to engage consumers wherever they may be, in person or online.

Shake Shack, for one, has been evolving to meet consumers’ needs, rolling out curbside pickup and expanded digital ordering options, launching in-app delivery, and using machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to personalize the experience and stay in tune with customers’ changing desires and expectations. Overall, the restaurant aims to meet consumers in the spaces they frequent, offering a compelling consumer journey that goes beyond the product itself.

“[We] hope that the experience of eating at a Shake Shack is so much more than the food, but it’s rather that elevated experience, and [that it] makes you want to come back for the experiential element even more so than the food,” Steph So, head of digital experience at Shake Shack, told Karen Webster in a recent interview as part of PYMNTS’ ConnectedEconomy™ series. “…We want to be wherever our guest is. We want to be where folks are having fun.”

The Evolution Of Omnichannel

So noted that in the “early days of omnichannel,” businesses approached eCommerce as an online recreation of the in-store experience, looking to offer the same products and services online as consumers would get in person. Now, however, Shake Shack is looking to optimize its physical and digital channels by focusing on the unique experience that each can provide.

“We actually think each channel has a specific advantage for the guest, and might actually fall into specific use cases for the guests,” noted So. “…There are things we can do in our physical space that are difficult to deliver in digital.”

For Shake Shack, the advantages of physical retail include the person-to-person hospitality that the channel can provide, greeting customers with a “smiling and friendly face.” In contrast, digital retail can take advantage of customer data to provide a personalized experience and to offer customers more information. So explained that customers have been looking for “more transparency around the fulfillment side of their experience,” with features such as real-time order tracking.

Granted, the restaurant’s physical spaces are still digitally enabled. So noted, “We will always build in digital elements into our physical space,” adding that features such as self-service kiosks offer customers “the experience of being in charge” when they visit Shake Shack locations.

While Shake Shack doesn’t look to provide the same online and in-person experience, the company aims to create the same feeling across channels.

“The brands that are successful give the guests the same feeling, whether they’re delivering it in a physical format versus digital,” said So. “And the lines are almost blurred in terms of whether [the customer is] choosing to start the journey in digital or in physical — the guests still end up having a really great guest experience.”

Engaging Consumers Through Contextual Commerce

One way the brand is taking advantage of the unique potential of eCommerce is through contextual activations, offering experiences beyond the traditional digital ordering journey.

“We’ve actually started doing contextual advertising within Waze, and we love the idea of voice-enabling that,” said So. “We’re working on drive-thru, so voice will ultimately be a big part of drive-thru.”

The company has also been offering content experiences for entertainment-seeking consumers, partnering with influencers and chefs who, So said, “amplify both the fun aspect and the lifestyle aspect of our brand, but also the culinary aspect.”

To identify the best ways to engage with guests, Shake Shack uses consumer data from its digital channels to “segmen[t] the guests and the communication channel that the guest prefers and delive[r] a message that’s really relevant to them at the time that’s most relevant to them.”

The ‘Eat’ Ecosystem

As the restaurant and grocery categories blur into a larger “eat” ecosystem, the traditional idea of the restaurant remains key to Shake Shack’s philosophy. In fact, So explained, when thinking about competitors, Shake Shack compares itself more to fast-casual chains and even fine dining restaurants than other quick-service businesses.

“We’ve never ruled out the idea of doing retail and thinking through how some of our products could end up on a retail shelf. We’re certainly not opposed to that idea,” said So. “We did ShackBurger kits at the very beginning of the pandemic for folks to bring home and cook.”

Shake Shack has borrowed from retail the “grocery mindset,” focusing the brand’s messaging on sourcing transparency and the ingredients’ quality.

“We’re kind of taking some of the language and the cues that the consumer is used to from the grocery experience and putting that into our dining experience, because they’ve voted with their wallets,” So said. “Those are things that really matter to them.”

However, the focus remains primarily on the traditional restaurant experience. As So added, “As economy has started to come back, and as the weather is improving and the pandemic is starting to die down a bit, we see a real desire by folks to gather — so it’ll be really interesting to see where the balance comes back on that.”

This sort of communal experience remains the company’s focus, and Shake Shack wants to remain clearly distinct from the grocery category.

“It’s kind of a different environment,” So said. “It’s more social, it’s more spontaneous. And especially for Shake Shack, we want our spaces to continue to be these community gathering places.”