The 2021 restaurant and c-stores landscape… and the big party in our future

Like most of America, the restaurant and c-store industries will be happy to bid 2020 goodbye and hope for a fresh start in 2021. As we at Paytronix look toward the future, we see a brightening on the horizon, one that may even end in a large party.

But getting there is going to mean change, not only in how the industry thinks about guest engagement, but also in how restaurants themselves are constructed. We predict that as restaurant and c-store brands move beyond the pandemic, they will need to make significant investments in the technology infrastructure that enables them to focus on truly owning the guest.

Consumers will demand safety, convenience, AND value

For years, restaurants and c-stores have focused on the idea of introducing technologies as a way to make transactions frictionless. The pandemic moved the value proposition away from convenience and toward the safety of not requiring physical contact.

As we move through 2021 and the pandemic starts to fade, we will see consumers find a balance between safety and convenience, but also start to look for value in those transactions.

Concepts like delivery, drive-thrus, curbside pickup, and mobile ordering will all be a core expectation of consumers, but how, when and where they choose to use those tools will be up to them. For restaurant and c-store brands, it’ll be important to have a full suite of offerings in a streamlined operation. But ultimately it will be the consumers who decide whether they’re looking for a dine-in experience with human interaction or an off-premises experience with no human contact.

Off-premises dining will force a change in the physical nature of restaurants and c-stores

On-premises business will never recover to its pre-pandemic levels, which means we’ll see greater emphasis on curbside, walk-up windows, and delivery. The idea of creating a personalized delivery connection between customer and brand will become increasingly important and determine both the location and the layout of future concepts. The same personalized guest experience that people crave when they come into the store must be replicated, at scale, even when they’re ordering from home and simply picking up their meal.

This will also force an expansion of ghost kitchens in a way that we haven’t yet seen. Already, major brands like McDonald’s, Chipotle, and Captain D’s are turning to smaller footprint stores that act more as a remote kitchen with simple pickup nodes. Delivery drivers and customers can all access the space in the same way, but there isn’t much room – or demand – for sit-down dining. With prime real estate dropping on the list of priorities, restaurants will be free to invest more money into delivery and guest engagement.

Technological advancement in online ordering will see autonomous deliveries and voice-ordering become the norm

Today, online ordering means using your fingers on a phone screen or typing into a web browser. The next step is speaking to virtual assistants like Siri or Alexa to place our orders.

Delivery will look different, too, with autonomous vehicles and robotic systems handling the home orders, taking the idea of contactless delivery to a whole new level. Pennsylvania has already passed legislation to allow for these delivery machines to move freely on sidewalks, and some are already operating in Pittsburgh on an experimental basis.

For brands, this will mean a new level of loyalty that enables regular customers to create and save their favorite menu items to make vocal ordering easier, as well as either an investment in new robotics technology or partnerships with third-party services that will invest in the autonomous devices.

C-stores will compete for a bigger share of travel expenses and will continue to experiment with drive-thrus

It will be a while before Americans feel comfortable taking regular flights, but that won’t stop the need to move around the country. Instead, people will move their long distance travel to the car, providing an opportunity for c-stores to drive consumers from the pump to the store.

Americans crave the convenience of car-based pickup. As an example, curbside pickup only took off in earnest during the pandemic and has quickly become a key player in contactless delivery. A survey by McKinsey found that 29% of respondents had used curbside pickup, compared with only 25% that used drive-thru, despite a half-century head start by the latter method. In both cases, a sizeable number of respondents said they would continue using both, even after the pandemic fades.

For c-stores, this offers a great opportunity to build drive-thrus. For those unable to physically restructure, they can easily stand up curbside or pump-side pickup.

Subscriptions will go mainstream

E-commerce has long embraced the power of subscriptions. Amazon, for example, built several different services into its Prime membership. But the key is that once customers have bought into the ecosystem, they remain fiercely loyal. When Feedvisor looked into it, it found that 48% of Amazon Prime members visit a few times a week, and an equal number make purchases at least once every week. A whopping 89% visit the site at least once a month.

The pandemic caused a seismic shift in brand loyalty overall. This affected restaurants and c-stores specifically, thanks to changes in personal habits like eliminating the daily commute or the work lunch. Among our customers, we found those with the strongest loyalty programs fared the best during the depth of the pandemic.

Subscriptions enable a key step in brand loyalty and they’re now available to more customers thanks to technology like what Paytronix rolled out in late 2020. We predict that making it easier to create subscription programs means that more restaurant and c-store brands will experiment with different offerings, creating new opportunities for guests and customers.

Andrew Robbins

The Author
A product visionary and Paytronix's team leader, Andrew motivates us to be innovative, maintain focus, and serve our customers beyond their wildest expectations. He has earned engineering degrees and a graduate business degree from some of the nation’s most prestigious universities – Princeton, MIT, and Harvard.

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