The ABCs Of QSR Mobility 

smartphone mobile food ordering

Five years ago, tapping a mobile phone to order ahead was still a relatively exotic idea. Starbucks mobile rewards were still new to the market — and though a veritable flood of mobile-based programs spun up offering similar points-based offers, at that time the firm was considered boldly innovative when its mobile order ahead system (combined with its points-based loyalty program) rolled out.

As the 2020s are gearing up to get going, however, the landscape has shifted to mobile in a way that few had predicted even a few years ago. An app, an order-ahead interface and a point system are less new and exciting innovations these days than they are the table stakes for being a serious high-level player in the game. Having the app and the program alone isn’t nearly enough as 2019 comes to a close — it is these days all about how well the experience around the app is served up to the quick-service restaurant (QSR) consumers. Doing it, and doing it right, these days are very different ideas.

So how to do it right?

It’s a big question, so PYMNTS brought in some of the big guns to answer it — specifically Dunkin’ Vice President of Digital and Loyalty Marketing Stephanie Meltzer-Paul, Chipotle Chief Technology Officer Curt Garner and Taco Bell Senior Director of Digital Technology Rafik Hanna.

All three brands have seen digital make a big difference in not just sales, but the shape of their firms. Chipotle was an early adopter of mobile order technology — first adding iPhone ordering as a feature in the 2009 edition of its app — and according to Garner that early focus on multichannel delivery helped Chipotle recover from a 36 percent sales decline brought on by concerns about food safety. Dunkin’ has about 12 million members into its DD Perks program, and an additional 500,000 added every quarter. All in, those perks members drive around 13 percent of revenue annually, and growing, according to Meltzer-Paul. And Taco Bell has expanded its entirely digital upgrade into what Hanna called a full recentering of the brand as it attempts to meet the emerging needs of its customers.

“We are becoming [an] omnichannel company like a lot of top retailers out there, and we’re going to see that growth and modernization of our brand continue,” he said. “We want to meet the customers where they want to be.”

And while there is no single magic method that makes it certain a brand will meet its customers where they want to be, there are some starting guideposts to make it easier to mark the way on the path.

A is For AI 

In the world of serving up digital experiences to consumers, knowledge is power. But knowledge isn’t just data, Meltzer-Paul explained, but the right artificial intelligence (AI) tools to parse what it all means.

“We collect data to make our mobile app and DD Perks program even more valuable and relevant to our guests,” Meltzer-Paul explained. “For instance, we can analyze a guest’s buying patterns so we can offer up more relevant future offers and promotions through DD Perks and suggest new products they may be interested in trying. We’re still early in that journey,” she said. “We’ll continue to evolve our data analytics capabilities, and AI is one area we’re exploring.”

Moreover, Garner noted, AI is useful for more than creating the front end experience; it is also critical in delivering a safe and secure digital environment for the customer to use.

AI and machine learning to play key roles in assessing risky transactions, as they can analyze thousands of transactions in a fraction of the time it takes a human analyst. In many situations, AI can do the job all on its own.

“When you’re looking at account takeovers, for example, it’s predominantly automated bot attacks that have an identifiable signature,” Garner explained. “As a retailer, you can say there’s no practical purpose why a customer would be trying to log on to your network using a bot. The security platforms that utilize AI and machine learning can also spot attack patterns as they try to morph into different vectors, and very quickly block those transactions as well.”

B is For Bigger 

While less is more in many contexts, in the world of QSR mobile experiences, generally the bigger and broader a firm is thinking, the better they are doing. Customers are complex, Taco Bell’s Hanna said, and their needs are expansive and variable by context.

“In the past few years, there’s been so much change and digitization of that customer experience in restaurants,” Hanna said. “We’ve been really intentional about making a dramatic shift to make Taco Bell experiences more digital.”

That has meant adding a mobile ordering feature to the app, but also has meant rebuilding the store experience itself around the same self-service trend that has been driving the industry of late. Taco Bell rolled out its first self-service kiosk in 2015 and has since worked to offer the technology at additional locations. The company plans to install them at all of its stores by the end of the year. The kiosks feature 22-inch touchscreen monitors that allow customers to quickly place their orders and pay via credit cards, debit cards, gift cards and mobile wallets.

“Kiosks really help our customers to own their ordering experiences and make it easier to customize food the way they want it,” Hanna said.

Dunkin’ has also  looked to expand its digital footprint beyond its mobile ordering app — though that will remain its focus for the time being, Meltzer-Paul explained, because it doesn’t at this point drive the most consumer interest. But, she noted, the space is ever evolving, and that could change — which is  why the chain introduced ordering through Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant last year, allowing customers to link their accounts to the voice assistants and speak their orders conversationally.

“We’re still early in that journey,” she said, noting that evolving the QSR’s capabilities in a variety of directions remains a critical focus.

Because, as all three QSR experts agree at the end of the day …

C is For Customer Choice 

The best QSR mobile experience, all three said, isn’t necessarily the one that the retailer itself most adores, but the one that makes helps consumers be the main driver of their mobile ordering experience.

AI can help the process by being useful in both showing customers more of what they want — and perhaps even finding ways to reward them for buying it — as well as securing them against hackers and cybercriminals looting their data. A broad selection of options can give customers the maximum number of tools to customize the experience.

But at the end of the day, all three agreed, it is the customer who is going to do the driving when it comes to the next phase of QSR innovations — and it is incumbent on the merchants that want to keep their business to keep up with their needs.

Consumers want what they want when they want it and where they want it,” Hanna said.