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More than 110,000 restaurants – an estimated 17% of the US total – closed last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Survivors had to get creative and quickly adapt to lockdowns, capacity constraints, supply chain disruptions, and staff shortages. The declining Covid-19 cases and the expansion of vaccination efforts now offer a glimmer of hope for the industry's comeback.
But even after most people have been vaccinated, Covid-19 and its consequences stay with us. According to a Nielsen survey, almost a quarter of people say they will spend less in restaurants going forward, both because of ongoing fears about the virus and because the pandemic has dramatically changed consumer behavior. For restaurants, this means the changes needed to survive the pandemic were only the beginning of a wider shift.
To attract diners and stay competitive in the post-pandemic world, restaurants need to focus on the three basic elements that are most important to customers: safety, value, and experience. Although health efforts over the past year have often appeared to be counter to profitability and customer satisfaction, restaurants can make various changes so that safety, value and experience are mutually reinforcing and not conflicting.
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Customers want security, value and experience
As researchers at the School of Hospitality Business at Michigan State University's Eli Broad College of Business, we studied how customers choose restaurants and develop loyalty to specific restaurants. Our research and that of others have repeatedly shown that the restaurant experience and customer values have a significant impact on where people eat.
However, security has always been important to customers. Our pre-pandemic research has shown that the feeling of security of guests in a restaurant is even more important than value in determining customer satisfaction and loyalty to a particular restaurant. The Covid-19 pandemic only added to the importance of safety: A recent survey found that customers are willing to spend twice as much in restaurants where safety and cleanliness are paramount.
Over the past year, many restaurants have struggled to create a safe environment while delivering value for money and a good experience. Safety measures such as operating at reduced capacity, purchasing PPE for employees or investing in expensive upgrades such as ventilation systems or outdoor seating had a negative impact on the restaurants' bottom line. Some restaurants were forced to raise prices or change their menus, while others introduced Covid-19 surcharges that quickly alienated customers.
Restaurants that prioritized experience at the expense of safety also didn't do well. The CDC found that Covid-19 cases are tending to increase after the rules for personal eating in areas were relaxed. As a result, establishments lacking social distancing or not enforcing mask policies make consumers anxious. In addition, restaurants are now explicitly assessed based on their pandemic response: With Yelp, customers can submit reviews of a company's Covid-19 guidelines and display them above normal feedback.
Related: 7 Things Restaurant Business Owners Must Do To Survive and Thrive
Four ways to increase customer satisfaction
The good news is that safety, value, and customer experience don't have to conflict with each other. This allows restaurateurs to combine these important aspects to attract customers and create a restaurant experience for the post-Covid-19 world.
The best place to start is social distancing. This is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of Covid-19, and 69% of consumers want to see it when they eat again in person. When done right, it can also enhance the customer experience by providing a quieter, more intimate dining environment. To avoid lost revenue, some restaurants, like Monty & # 39; s Steakhouse in Los Angeles, have tried to place partitions between tables rather than reducing capacity. These can range from inexpensive wood or plexiglass tops to stylish glass walls and in many cases can be installed without removing a single table.
Restaurants can also switch from multi-purpose physical menus to touchless digital menus, which more than 40% of Americans want in their post-pandemic dining experience. Contactless ordering is easy and inexpensive to implement – all you need is a free QR code generator and sticker on the table – and creates a more seamless experience for customers. In addition, digital ordering systems help restaurants increase check size by cross-selling items, free waiters for other tasks, and activate loyalty programs that encourage repeat customers. QR codes have long been popular in Asia, and during the pandemic they were even used by upscale New York restaurants like Jean Georges and Daniel.
Additionally, restaurants should make sure customers are aware of the investments they are making to create a safer and cleaner space. For example, if employees have been vaccinated, a new ventilation system has been installed, or the number of tables has been reduced due to social distancing, restaurants can notify customers with a sign on the door or posters on tables. In a Deloitte survey, 80% of respondents said that knowing about a restaurant's improved cleanliness or safety measures would motivate them to eat out more. The more visible a restaurant's security measures are to customers, the better.
Finally, restaurants should continue to invest in alternatives to in-person dining, such as takeaway food sets, online cooking classes, roadside pickup, and delivery. Forty percent of people say they will continue to use takeaway and delivery after the pandemic, and these services allow guests who remain safety conscious to enjoy their favorite restaurants. At the same time, they give restaurants more points of contact with customers, which provides a subtle stimulus to visit and increases customer loyalty. For example, Lettuce Entertain You, a Chicago-based restaurant group, has been running virtual events throughout the pandemic, combining meal sets and cooking classes to keep customers engaged.
To reconnect customers with personal dining, restaurants must combine safety, value and experience in a way that reflects customer concerns in the post-pandemic world. These priorities were often in competition over the past year. However, there are a number of cost-effective changes restaurateurs can make that will all help make customers feel safe, increase the restaurant's value proposition, and provide a better experience for diners. Restaurants that successfully focus on the essentials will see higher levels of customer satisfaction and loyalty.
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