COVID might be on its way out, but online ordering is here to stay

A couple waits to be seated at a host standWith spring this year comes a renewed sense of hope that is a little greater than usual: the weather is warming, plants are blooming, and vaccinations are rolling out, signaling the beginning of the end of the pandemic that rocked the globe. 

While the pandemic itself is likely to stretch on for a few more months at the least, consumers, eager to take advantage of the optimism afforded by the rise in vaccinations and decline in cases, have been frequenting businesses more and more. 

In Massachusetts alone, restaurants have experienced a huge lift in indoor dining – up about 37% from the start of February through the end of March, according to Paytronix data. But that uptick is not coming at the expense of online sales, and it’s earlier than CEO Andrew Robbins expected. 

“I thought it was going to come later. . . in the May time frame,” Andrew told The Boston Globe. “A lot of this is improved sentiment. People are feeling better about things. They are tired of being in their cocoons.”

Across the country, Paytronix data shows only a 3% increase in online sales at restaurants from the first week of February to the last week of March; but in-store, that spend grew by 13% over the same time period, indicating that guests are beginning to opt for the on-premises experience now that it feels safe again. Overall, sales increased by 7% – a promising sign as the economy continues to recover from a tumultuous 2020. 

Graph displaying online versus in-store spend over time

The rate of spend at restaurants increased both in-store and online throughout February and March, though the in-store channel grew significantly more.

Graph showing online versus in-store spending in February compared to March

Guests spent about 13% more on-premises and about 3% more online during the week of March 22 than they had the week of February 1, suggesting the beginning of a return to on-site dining.

But even as more guests choose to venture on-premises, data from 2020 shows that consumers formed habits during the pandemic that are unlikely to revert to pre-COVID levels. Our data shows there was a spike in online orders during the 12th week of 2020 – March 15 to 21 – that coincided with a precipitous drop in on-premises orders, as was to be expected.
But the data also shows that while online sales at restaurants did begin to peter out after peaking in May, the rate of online orders remained at least double that of the pre-COVID months of January and February. This massive shift in online ordering behavior persisted throughout the remainder of 2020. 
Graph displaying in-store versus online spend in restaurants during 2020

Online sales peaked in early May 2020, but remained at levels more than twice that of the pre-pandemic norm throughout the remainder of the year.

So, while guests are showing signs of venturing out and about again – a hopeful sign not only for the restaurant industry, but for the economy at large – the dining patron of 2021 will be much more likely to order their meal to go. 

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