With high-street operators dominating the market, workplace caterers have to up their game when it comes to technology in order to impress and sustain their audience. Elly Earls reports
Workplace caterers face tough competition from the high street, where many operators are doing an excellent job of catering to the growing demand for healthier choices, vegetarian and vegan options and specialist dietary requirements.
New research carried out by The Caterer with cloud-based point of sale provider Omnico suggests that on top of ensuring their menus match up to those on the high street, caterers can fight back with technology.
Interviews with 1,500 employees who use on-site catering facilities, such as restaurants and cafeterias, split evenly between the US and the UK, revealed that if contract caterers were to introduce technologies to reduce queue times and personalise offers to their customers' preferences, they would come back at least once more per week, substantially boosting revenue.
However, with 34% saying they don't go more frequently because they hate queueing to be served, 27% putting their infrequent visits down to payment queues and 70% saying that a loyalty programme or promotions would make them visit their cafeteria more often, there's substantial room for improvement.
Queueing: employees' biggest bugbear
With the average UK worker now taking just 34 minutes for lunch and many Americans even less, it wasn't surprising that the research found queueing to be the number one bugbear employees have about their staff restaurant or cafeteria. In fact, resistance to queueing is now so ingrained in the US that long lines are estimated to cost retailers nearly $38b annually in lost sales.
What also came through in the research was that a lack of advanced ordering and payment options is a significant factor in reducing visit frequency and that giving employees the ability to order ahead so they can beat queues is the single most effective step caterers can take to improve footfall.
Indeed, 81% of respondents said if they could order ahead and pick up their meal from a dedicated service point at a specific time, they would attend the cafeteria more often, with 52% saying they would use order ahead every time and 29% that they would use order ahead some of the time.
While apps were found to be the most popular method for pre-ordering - 48% of respondents want to place an order using an app on their phone, compared to 23% online and 10% with a touch-screen kiosk - a variety of channels remains essential to meeting the requirements of a diverse audience. In addition, as individuals will often use more than one channel depending on their situation, operators need to provide a seamless and consistent experience across every touch-point.
"If the kiosk software has the same look and feel and the same buttons as the app on your phone, you're much more likely to use it," says Omnico chief executive Mel Taylor. "That consistency across different touch-points - whether it's the web, a mobile phone, a tablet or a kiosk - is crucial."
On average, technologies including order-ahead, app, touch-screen kiosk and self-scan were found to boost visit frequency by 1.18 extra days per person per week, a substantial figure in terms of potential revenue uplifts, bearing in mind that 26% of respondents currently only visit once a week and 33% visit two or three times each week.
Pre-order in practice
Previous research The Caterer and Omnico carried out together in mid-2017 found that contract caterers were keen to embrace new forms of technology - such as pre-order - to boost efficiency, improve customer service and alleviate the challenges they face.
Some 33% said they wished technology could give their customers the ability to pre-book, so orders and numbers could be more accurately predicted, while 52% believed this would improve operational efficiencies.
Enter 2019 and more caterers are putting theory into practice. CH&Co, for example, has a number of systems available to its workplace customers that allow them to pre-order and find out about promotions.
"A huge benefit of engaging customers through technology is that it makes the catering facility more accessible and convenient for customers, which in turn can increase sales revenue," says regional managing director Matt Symonds.
He has found that technology users tend to sit in two distinct groups: those who are time-pressured and use technology to reduce queue times, and those who want something bespoke outside of core service times - for example, a cook-to-order meal in the middle of the afternoon for someone who knows they will be working late.
"App technology allows us to be more flexible and create an additional offering at traditionally quieter times of the day," he says. "This is great for the customer and also for the business, as through effective use of our teams and facilities we can generate additional revenue."
Contract caterer Bartlett Mitchell also has a series of mobile apps that enable its workplace customers to place a food or drink order from their desk and have it ready to be collected later. As marketing director Lin Dickens explains, the app is used in places the team feels they will have the most uptake.
"We'd usually conduct an audit to see what the appetite is for such technology, and whether there is the infrastructure to enable us to deliver this effectively," she says. "For some customers, it is very convenient but it really depends on the nature of the business, the building set-up and the food offer at the workplace."
An important finding from Omnico's 2017 research was that while many caterers recognised the potential of technologies to transform operational efficiency and boost visits, they weren't far enough advanced with their implementation.
Today, even caterers that have crossed that barrier continue to face challenges. "A big obstacle is customer behaviour," Symonds says. "Although lots of customers talk about wanting technology and respond positively to everything apps can offer, in reality, uptake is relatively low.
"Contactless payment by credit card is the most popular method of payment and customers are still reluctant to keep apps on their devices. This makes it harder to get a return on the investment in technology, so changing behaviour is important for the success of app technology in the workplace."
Meanwhile, the biggest challenge being faced at Bartlett Mitchell is infrastructure, both in terms of technology and the physical layout of a workplace.
"There are many things to consider when building these apps into an offer," Dickens says. "These include ensuring that the on-site manager is comfortable with using tech to update the app, having things like tablets in the kitchen to receive the order, a kitchen system for fulfilment and having an easy process for collection and space."
CH&Co's head of marketing Hayley Miller agrees that variation between sites makes implementation more complex. "It's not like a high-street operation, where one offer is replicated across all sites; we have to ensure the requirements of each individual site are reflected," she says. "Careful thought and consideration are needed, however, as the benefits it can bring to the business, client and customer makes it worthwhile.
"An app can quite literally enable us to be in a customer's pocket and learn about them; from their personal preferences on food and communication, for example, to their behaviours and habits. This allows us to communicate with customers in a meaningful way and reward them with promotions and loyalty schemes that add real value."
'Personalisation is key'
The research confirms that caterers should never underestimate the power of loyalty schemes, with 70% of respondents saying that a loyalty programme or promotions would make them visit their workplace cafeteria more often.
Schemes offering loyalty reward points redeemable against future purchases proved to be the most effective promotion, with responses indicating an average two extra visits per person per week. Yet other types of promotions - including pre-packed meal deals with discounts and a loyalty scheme redeemable against a catalogue of products - were close behind, suggesting that there isn't one stand-out option caterers can bank on to deliver returns.
Similarly, respondents were split between how they wanted to learn about special offers and changes to the menu, where 27% liked the idea of text messages, 22% wanted to engage on an app and 21% would prefer to receive workplace emails; while 13% wanted to visit a website, 9% to find out via digital screens and 6% via digital kiosks.
Operators clearly need to think about personalising the way they engage to best influence individual behaviour, choosing the right message or promotion that takes into account each user's preferences and delivering it through the channels with which they most frequently engage.
As Taylor stresses: "Personalisation is key. In order to fight back against high-street operators, caterers need to use the data a loyalty programme can offer - so it knows what you've bought in the past, it knows what the promotional offers are and it ties it all together."
Symonds agrees: "Personalisation of promotions is incredibly important, and I would say more important than rewards. Customers like to feel that they are getting something special that is tailored to them. They can very easily switch off and opt out of engagement if they feel they're part of a 'one-size-fits-all' general communications campaign."
It is therefore important that data can be easily analysed and segmented in order to deliver this personalised approach in an automated way and target specific customer behaviours and segments for the best returns.
Added bonuses for caterers include improved efficiency and reduced food waste. "If you know what is going to be popular, you can reduce wastage and process orders more efficiently," Taylor says.
A unified approach to ordering, payment and loyalty
The only way to make this work properly is with a digital platform that pulls everything together - from pre-order to inventory to kitchen management to payment to loyalty - and provides consistency across all channels and touch-points.
"The customer journey is at the centre of the transaction, so a customer should be able to move with a transaction from a kiosk seamlessly over to a mobile app, without having to finish the transaction on one then restart a different transaction somewhere else," Taylor explains.
"Each customer should also be remembered as an individual. The system should know that the last time they visited, they bought a cup of coffee using cash but scanned their app at the same time, which gave them an additional 10 loyalty points. Next time they go to a kiosk it should say, 'Welcome back; your points have been added and you now have a free coffee'.
"That's an omni-channel approach to catering and that's how contract caterers can fight back against the high street - by having this unified approach to ordering, payment and loyalty."
Combatting the breakfast queues
Through Compass Group's pre-order system, which is currently available at some of its workplace sites, diners can log their request via an app and collect their preferred menu items at a pre-arranged time.
Liz Forte, marketing director for Compass Group UK and Ireland's business and industry and government services, says: "Ease and speed of service are both crucial elements for us to achieve to meet consumer demands - our consumers don't want to spend their breaks in queues. The facility to pre-order is a simple and effective way to ensure our customers avoid queuing as well as getting exactly what they want, when they want."
The off-peak system - ie 'order your lunch before 11am' - has also helped to alleviate pressure in the kitchen and avoid bottlenecks during busy periods. Although implementing pre-order hasn't been without its challenges.
"The biggest problem we have had to overcome is making sure paying consumers who are in the same queue aren't ignored in favour of the pre-order customers and vice versa," Forte says. "One solution is to have a specific collection area and clearly marked queues."
When it comes to loyalty, Compass works with its sites to offer the best solution for each client that would benefit from a loyalty programme, through using a combination of bespoke loyalty card schemes and the Yoyo app.
Personalisation is at the heart of the offer. "The more we learn about what consumers want, the more we can tailor promotions and offers accordingly - it is so important to offer consumers an individual experience," Forte says.
Cash versus cashless
Staff increasingly want to move to cashless payments that save time when paying at their cafeteria or restaurant. The previous research found that 41% of contract caterers said they would like to offer speedier cashless payment methods. However, cash is still the preferred method for 33% of the survey respondents, while 27% have card payment as their first choice.
Yet the picture changes when respondents are asked how they would pay if they had a full range of options. Smartphone-based technologies such as Apple Pay or its equivalents were the first preference with 25% (compared with just 6% who usually pay this way now). Meanwhile, using kiosks to self-scan was the most popular option overall, even though only 4% currently use this method.
"In the future, we will have a completely cashless society," Taylor says. "But at the moment we still have to deal with cash and it's important to have a seamless customer journey, whether you're using cash or loyalty points."
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