ALEXANDRIA, Va.—The pandemic has brought major challenges for restaurants and convenience stores, according to Andrew Robbins, CEO of Paytronix, a customer engagement platform for the restaurant and c-store industries. But he’s optimistic about what is coming next.
In an interview with Pyments.com, Robbins said he expects a better future because foodservice operators and retailers are flexible and open to innovation, and he pointed out several examples of creativity.
There’s the New York restaurateur who has traded serving power lunches and dinners to selling desserts to her large Instagram following. There’s Boston’s Kowloon restaurant, which has transformed its sit-down location into a carhop eatery and drive-in movie theater, and there’s the convenience store owner who’s installed plastic sheet dispensers so customers can open the shop’s door without touching the door handle.
The will to innovate is there, and innovation is an ongoing process, Robbins said, and along with innovation comes hope and a desire to keep changing as customers’ needs shift.
In the next few months, the recent move to outdoor dining will likely shift in northern climates. According to Robbins, that will require a whole host of changes as on-site restaurant dining moves back indoors. Solutions will vary from low-tech—like creative seating arrangements—to more involved initiatives. For example, one Paytronix restaurant partner is trying to redo flooring and ventilation systems to rapidly draw all air in the establishment down to the ground, where embedded UV lights will reportedly annihilate the virus.
From the mundane to the vaguely sci-fi, Robbins believes any enhancements will likely be connected to a digitized and online component of the consumer experience. He said clients are asking how to make their digital order flow match up with the in-house experience and how to upgrade curbside delivery to better serve consumers.
“They want to know how to make the curbside experience special in some way and go over the top in bringing some unique flavor to that experience,” he said.
In addition, restaurants are re-evaluating how much of the experience they want to own and how much they’re willing to share with third-party aggregators. Even before the pandemic, restaurateurs were concerned about third-party delivery capabilities that come at a high price and push restaurants from the center of the customer relationship.
“And then when COVID hit, we were all so happy that delivery existed because it solved a problem,” Robbins said. “I think everybody [temporarily] forgave the existing issues, or at least brushed them aside.”
But those issues are reappearing, he said, with some states passing regulations on how much third parties can charge. Media reports also indicate that consumers are paying more as merchants raise prices to make up for revenue lost to the aggregators.
Robbins noted that last month marked the first time that third-party sites had more net orders than restaurants’ own websites did. Such developments have restaurateurs and convenience store owners getting more aggressive about holding onto their customer base.
“Some of the savvy restaurants are buying ads for their own name to make sure that when the customer does search, their own URL ends up on top,” Robbins said. “And they are working overtime to figure out what they can do to make ordering in their channels more appealing, so that their customers want to stick with them—not the aggregators.”
While COVID-19 is temporary, the digitization of restaurant ordering is looking increasingly permanent, which means competing in digital channels will always be relevant, he said.
Paytronix merchants are divided about what will come next. Some are certain that changes are permanent when it comes to consumers ordering digitally and eating at home. Others believe consumers still want to dine out and will largely go back to normal when they get the all-clear sign, he said. But most restaurateurs are coming around to the idea that it won’t be an either/or, but both. He thinks the secret to future success will come from offering customers both options and letting them decide.
“A piece of this going forward will be a ‘choose your own adventure,’ [which] a restaurant and convenience store is going to have to create,” Robbins said. “That might mean ordering from home with a third-party aggregator or from the site, or from an app and picking up in a drive-thru or parked in a parking lot. [Companies] have got to make that matrix work so that the customer can choose whatever adventure they’re feeling like that day.”
NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.