The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been very significant, and fears of a long term disruption aren’t entirely unfounded — especially when you consider the fact that food preparation and service is the second most common occupation in the United States: restaurants and bars have been closed in a lot of places and severe restrictions have been introduced in other places where they are still allowed to operate — yet, people have to eat, and demand for food isn’t waning anytime soon.
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on restaurants, in particular, has been very severe. For example:
- Restaurants, on average, have laid off 70 percent of their salaried workforce and 91 percent of their hourly workforce due to COVID-19.
- 56 percent of restaurants have accrued at least $50,000 in debt due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The restaurant industry is expected to experience losses to the tune of $240 billion in 2020.
While these facts are depressing by any measure, it isn’t exactly the end of the road for the food industry; if anything, there are signs that a change in strategy, with a customer-centric focus, could very well be key to the industry’s survival.
Case in point is the rise in demand for at-home meal kits and meal delivery services since the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, at-home meal kit services like Blue Apron and HelloFresh have seen rapid increase in demand; while Blue Apron prices have remained stable, their stock price has shot up rapidly — once increasing by as much as 600 percent in a 3-day period. If anything, what this underscores is a shift in how people now consume food — and it’s important to pay careful attention to this on the long-term.
Here are six customer-centric changes food businesses should make to survive:
1. Embrace a Focus on Takeouts and At-Home Deliveries
There is a reason food delivery services like Grubhub and UberEats, as well as at-home meal kits like Blue Apron and HelloFresh, are experiencing record growth: thanks to the pandemic, there has been a shift towards takeouts and at-home meals instead of eating out.
People have to eat at home now not only for personal safety reasons but also due to government policy and restrictions preventing eating out and in groups. Available data shows that at least 33 percent more people are getting takeouts now than before the COVID-19 pandemic.
2. Embrace mobile technology for your food business
Mobile is a huge part of our lives right now, and not realizing this and embracing it could cost your food business a lot: according to data from Bluedot, 51 percent of consumers have installed at least one new mobile app to purchase food and essentials due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Data further shows that grocery and food delivery apps have seen daily download increase of up to 218 percent due to the pandemic.
A key question then is: do you have a mobile marketing strategy? Does your food business have a mobile order and fulfilment strategy? Do you have your own mobile app or are you in partnership with others to allow for mobile users to order from you? If not, you need to review your strategy.
3. Emphasize a focus on consumer safety and hygiene
While customers would certainly want to make sure there are good hygiene practices wherever they will be ordering their food, COVID-19 has further increased attention to cleanliness and hygiene practices.
In fact, data from Restaurant Business shows that a whopping 55 percent of people now expect to see more hand sanitizer dispensers to increase their feelings of safety inside restaurants; this is very important right now as countries start to reopen, and it will be just as important even after the pandemic is long gone. Now is a good time to start focusing on good hygiene practices that promote the safety of your customers, and it is equally important to make sure that this fact is well known.
4. Social distancing is still a major customer concern in the food industry
Research from Datassential shows that a food business’s approach to social distancing could make or break it both in the near and long term; specifically, the study found that 28 percent of people are particular about not being near others in a restaurant, 38 percent of people are worried about touching the same objects as others, and 7 percent are concerned about interacting with restaurant staff.
The solution in this case is to automate as much of the food delivery process as possible, ensure strict social distancing measures, regularly sanitize items and the environment, and make sure that customers are aware that this is being done.
5. Besides the physical aspect of running your food business, you should pay careful attention to the customer experience
It becomes even more important to focus on the customer experience and satisfaction during times like this; incentives, discounts, and regular promotions should be introduced to increase customer loyalty to your brand.
Research from Facebook shows that for 63 percent of diners, discounts and promotions play a key role when deciding on which restaurant to order from. It is also important to introduce a customer loyalty program that rewards your customers for their loyalty to your business during times such as these.
6. Emphasize and encourage customer involvement with your brand
The more involved customers are with a brand, the more loyal they will be to that brand.
Now more than ever, it is important to emphasize and encourage customer involvement with your brand: gamification, user generated content, and interactive elements should be used to get customers to engage with your food business.
For example, people can be encouraged to take pictures, or share pictures from the internet, of their favorite menus on social media with an hashtag specific to your brand; you can then select from these menus, prepare the selections, and have it delivered to some of these customers. You could also introduce a food game that customers play in which those with the highest scores will get certain food packages from you. There are several other ideas that you could explore, the potential is endless, to get people to engage and interact with your brand and in the process increase patronage of your business.