UK consumers are lagging behind their European and US counterparts in terms of ordering restaurant or takeaway food on the Internet. Matt Franey, director of Manchester-based Online Catering Services, examines why and asks what you can do about it.
The list of everyday activities moving onto the web is long and varied. From banking to supermarket shopping through booking holidays and finding a job, few aspects of life are unaffected by the web.
That is except for one very common activity - ordering restaurant or takeaway food. The USA and Europe have embraced online ordering with thousands of meals ordered each day but we in the UK have proved a little reluctant.
So what's happening? We are all leading busy lives with more meals being eaten away from home or at home without cooking for ourselves, so this order method should be growing apace. Why aren't people ordering online?
- Takeaway food is a very local matter. People know their favourite restaurant and use it repeatedly. These neighbourhood businesses are less likely to be on the web than larger concerns.
- Small orders aren't worth it. Unless you are ordering ahead to beat a queue then a £3 item is not going to get ordered online, just as it is unlikely to be ordered by fax or phone.
- Habit. It's a new thing and people aren't used to it. It will happen though and those outlets with the capability will get the business. Once people try online ordering they like it. The novelty and ease of the process means word of mouth will spread quickly.
- They don't have chance. There are lots of portal sites which will show you a list of restaurants and then either give you their details or pass you onto a website. When you get to the website, however, there is just a few pictures and a menu and nothing else to do. The conventional order methods are still used even though the customer comes via the web.
The times where people will order online are specific.
- When they have ordered online already. This is a curious fact but experience in other countries where online ordering is more prevalent shows that once someone has ordered food online they are much more likely to do it again. In comparison with phone ordering, which is the main alternative, online ordering is quicker and easier so naturally people favour it once they know and trust it.
- When they want to eat in a specific timeframe. Pre-ordered food can make the difference between a sandwich at your desk and a meal in a restaurant or café. People like to know they're getting their food quickly and can relax and enjoy their lunch.
- Organized groups. Do you cater for big office groups? Do you find order-taking a lengthy process when they arrive? Could they all do it from their desks and arrive as their starters are being served? Are menus passed round the office and collated by someone before you get the whole order?
- When it's hard to order another way. Is it difficult for customers to place phone orders with you? Is your phone engaged? Are your waiters busy? Is it noisy in your restaurant and hard to take phone orders? Do you get mistakes and missed items on phone orders
- Corporate buffet lunches. If a busy secretary can organize a 20-person finger buffet more quickly using online booking than any other system, then that is what they will do.
- Family takeaway meals. With lots of people and lot of items, these family orders can be chaotic to organize for the customer. The phone is a poor medium for this with long orders being prone to errors and time-consuming. Building a large order online is easy.
- Order ahead. People at work can order from work and pick the meal up as they head home.
- Repeat orders. We are all creatures of habit and the ability to re-order last week's choices with a few clicks is a great way to make it easy for customers to order from you.
Of course there are times when online ordering isn't the best choice. Choosing your food when you sit down to eat is part of the pleasure of eating out. What is important is that your customers get the choice, ensuring you get the business.
What can you do now?
- Think about your customers. Are they in office jobs with a PC in front of them all day? Are they at home with a PC?
- Are you catering for the customers listed above? Do you have a guaranteed quick-service lunch offering? Do you have queues for takeaway food? Is it hard to get through to you on the phone?
- Think about your website. If you don't have one, get one. Promote the website. Mention it on your till receipts. When you next update your menus, include the web address. Put a sign in the window. List your site on portal sites so people can find yours when they look for it. Advertise on Google. Mention the site to your regular customers. Have promotions on the site.
- Think about growth. Experience has shown that once people are ordering food online they order more food, more frequently. This can increase your turnover and needs to be exploited.
How will this market change in the future?
Online Catering Services operates the Online Waiter service, an online ordering service for restaurants, takeaways, sandwich bars and providers of business catering services.