When Restaurant Mobile Apps Don’t Work as Planned

Starbucks and others found online ordering initially increased congestion and frustrated customers

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BY JULIE JARGON

Starbucks changed the way it handles mobile orders after drink pick-up areas became clogged.

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RESTAURANT-CHAIN APPS are reshaping a business built on human interaction. But these new systems don’t always work as planned. Soon after McAlister’s Deli, a chain of sandwich shops, introduced mobile ordering a few months ago, it found it had a problem: The counter where customers place their orders in the shops was often clogged with patrons who had ordered meals ahead of time through the McAlister app.

“People who place mobile orders think they have to wait in line,” says Paul Macaluso, president of McAlister’s, which is owned by Focus Brands Inc. “They feel bad about cutting the line.”

They also felt frustrated. To fix the problem, McAlister’s built cubbies with sliding doors that open to the kitchen, so that employees can pass takeout orders onto shelves where customers can pick them up without standing in line with people ordering food. New signs in the store direct customers who placed online orders to the pickup area, and employees were given extra training that includes guiding to-go customers to the right area.

To further improve customer flow, soon an updated app will allow patrons to choose to pick up their food curbside or in the restaurant, Mr. Macaluso says.

Starbucks Corp. noticed a similar problem about nine months ago at its 1,000 cafes with the highest volume of mobile orders. Congestion was getting worse in the area where drinks are handed off, as customers who ordered online showed up to pick up their orders. Many customers who came into the cafes to buy something saw the long lines and turned away, contributing to an overall decline in transactions.

In an effort to reduce the crowding, Starbucks has changed the way its baristas handle orders. Previously, orders would show up on a display screen that made no distinction between those made online and those made at the registers in the cafes. Now, baristas can see which orders were made online, and they can notify customers on the app when those orders are ready, so that those patrons don’t need to mill around the cafe waiting for their drinks.

In addition, the new system allows Starbucks to track how long it takes to fill mobile orders, and adjust staffing accordingly. For instance, if the data show that it is taking longer for mobile orders to be filled during a particular shift, a cafe can add staff during that shift to speed up service.

The company also “rethought the entire production methodology,” says Adam Brotman, the company’s executive vice president of global retail operations and partner digital engagement.

For example, almost all Starbucks cafes have two espresso machines, but often only one was in use at a time. Now, during peak traffic periods at certain cafes, a barista uses one machine to make drinks for mobile customers while another uses the second to make drinks for in-store guests.

Starbucks says it has shaved one minute off wait times for all customers at some of its cafes, though it won’t say how long wait times are. It also says customer-satisfaction scores at those stores have improved significantly. “We got faster at making food and beverages for all customers,” Mr. Brotman says.

Thinking big Taco Bell, a unit of Yum Brands Inc., had a different concern about its app. Specifically, people weren’t using it because its drive-through service was so fast. Executives thought the app would appeal to people making small orders, but customers found they were able to get their food just as quickly at the drive-through as they could by ordering ahead, says Liz Williams, Taco Bell’s chief financial officer.

So now, she says, Taco Bell plans to aim the app at people who want to place large orders but might worry about clogging up drive-through lines with complicated requests. It plans to introduce a version of the app soon that will allow customers to name a pickup time, so they can pick up even the largest orders without delay.

“We are looking forward to communicating how easy it is to place group orders online,” Ms. Williams says.

Coupon, location snafus

Some companies that have offered digital ordering for years, like Domino’s Pizza Inc., are facing new challenges as technology evolves. The pizza chain is one of the few restaurant companies to allow voice ordering through Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home devices.

The challenge is that voice technology doesn’t always work well with coupons, and more than three-quarters of orders in the pizza industry involve coupons. “If it’s a local coupon that’s only available in one or two stores, the voice assistant has a hard time figuring out which coupon you’re talking about,” says Dennis Maloney, Domino’s chief digital officer. “Some people give up and move to another platform like desktop or mobile,” he says.

Domino’s is working to find a solution, Mr. Maloney says, but until it does it is offering 20% off on platforms including Alexa and Home if customers ask about deals or coupons.

Another problem several restaurant chains have experienced is that customers often end up at the wrong location to pick up their order, because they tend to place orders while in transit, and the software selects the location closest to them to fill the order, rather than the destination they intended.

“Inaccurate location is our top user error right now,” says Kira McCabe, associate director of digital media and marketing at Tropical Smoothie Cafe, which is adding a “confirming location” button to the ordering process in its next app update.

“We have a highly mobile audience and they’re distracted,” Ms. McCabe says.

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