Leveraging Restaurant Loyalty's Untapped Opportunities

Only one-third of customers feel connected to their favorite brand and its people

Published in CSP Daily News

NEW YORK -- Among consumers who belong to at least one restaurant loyalty program, nearly three-quarters (74%) indicate that they do not participate in their favorite restaurant's program, either because they say one is not offered or they are simply not sure whether one is available, according to a new Deloitte study entitled Second Helpings: Building Consumer Loyalty in the Fast Service & Casual Dining Restaurant Sector.

But among the other 26% who indicate that their favorite restaurant offers a loyalty program, a large majority (87%) actually belongs to it, implying a high conversion rate among a restaurant's best customers.

Only one-quarter (25%) of consumers consider loyalty programs important when choosing a restaurant. One-half (50%) of survey respondents said they belong to at least one restaurant program, a much lower rate compared with those of other sectors, such as airlines (78%) and hotels (70%).

"Although restaurant loyalty program participation is lagging, the study indicates that consumers do not have an inherent aversion to such programs," said Scott Rosenberger, principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP and Deloitte's U.S. Consulting Travel, Hospitality & Leisure Leader.

Loyalty programs that complement interactions with restaurant staff and digital engagement are another lever that restaurants can pull to deliver more personalized connections and service that customers crave while increasing brand awareness and affinity.

Only one-third (33%) of respondents felt that they had developed a personal relationship with their favorite restaurants' brand and people. Attributes such as responsiveness and friendliness of staff rank high (fifth and eighth out of 23 attributes) in terms of importance to the restaurant experience, and relatively high in terms of repeat patronage (11th and 10th).

While these characteristics rank high, consumers still hesitate to share their experiences about them. Approximately seven in 10 (71%) survey respondents liked the menu options at their favorite restaurants, but only 42% would be willing to serve as brand ambassadors, and 61% said that they never or rarely wanted restaurants to contact them for personal feedback.

However, there a number of untapped opportunities for restaurants to engage their patrons in a manner they prefer. About six in 10 (61%) consumers indicate they prefer to be contacted via email, while less than half this amount (28%) say restaurants actually do so. One half (50%) prefer traditional mail, 29 percentage points higher than the number who say they receive it.

Restaurants can also amplify their engagement through mobile channels. Among consumers who have downloaded a mobile application (19%), the primary reasons for doing so include viewing restaurant menu and prices (55%) and checking for hours of operation (46%). Restaurants can harness these existing activities to make other offerings--such as loyalty programs or promotions--front and center.

"Loyalty programs, mobile platforms and customer outreach, among other approaches, afford restaurants the unintrusive means to understand and connect with customers in ways that matter to them individually," said Rosenberger. "Blending traditional and digital channels, restaurants can gain insights into customer preferences through each transaction and interaction. Armed with that knowledge, they can make more personalized gestures, such as a free favorite beverage or dessert as a birthday or anniversary present, that help garner goodwill and drive brand affinity."

The survey also revealed that it is still critical for restaurants to deliver on the basics. Food taste (first out of 23 attributes), food safety (second), order accuracy (third), and price (fourth) ranked at the very top for respondents, in terms of importance to the restaurant experience. This suggests that even the most effective loyalty programs will not adequately compensate for an otherwise weak value proposition, even for those customers who regularly use such programs.

However, even when restaurants get the basics right, their customers have plenty of suitors, underscoring the need for improved, personal connections with customers. Only one-fifth (19%) of respondents said they spend more than half of their total 30-day restaurant budget at their most frequented restaurants. Furthermore, 43% said that they actually spend less than one-quarter of their budget at their favorite restaurant.

The survey was commissioned by Deloitte and conducted online by an independent research organization between Nov. 28 and Dec. 9, 2013. The survey polled 4,093 fast service (QSR and fast casual) and casual dining restaurant customers, based on restaurant visits 30 days prior to taking the survey.