• In a wide-ranging study, Simon-Kucher & Partners found that price of menu items has declined in importance for customers and willingness-to-pay will remain higher after the pandemic.
  • Consumers react better to menu price inflation than to an increase of delivery fees, but pricing of some items—typically the traffic drivers or hero items—should be treated with caution.
  • The study predicts that demand for digital ordering will remain high after the pandemic, with customers preferring restaurant websites/apps to third-party options.

Related: CDC study links on-premise dining to rise in COVID-19 cases, deaths

A new study found that customers say they will spend twice as much per month at restaurants that meet cleanliness standards compared to those that don’t.

The wide-ranging study also predicts that use of digital channels for ordering food will remain higher than pre-pandemic levels, with only 35 percent of orders expected to be consumed inside a restaurant after the pandemic subsides, compared to 40 percent before COVID-19.

The findings are contained in the second installment of The New Normal for Restaurants study from Simon-Kucher & Partners, a global strategy and marketing consulting firm, and Lucid, a programmatic research technology company. The study compares pre-, during, and post-pandemic crisis trends and topics such as consumption trends and order channel evolution, restaurant visit criteria (including the evolving importance of sanitation and food preparation), and willingness-to-pay.

When survey respondents were asked to evaluate the importance of various restaurant visit criteria, price of menu items had notably decreased in importance, indicating that consumers now value cleanliness and sanitation more than cost, the study found.

Due to the shift in visit criteria, consumers also indicate post-COVID-19 willingness-to-pay will be six percent greater than pre-COVID-19 willingness-to-pay. The increase in willingness-to-pay, which varies by region and customer groups, will be most prominent at fast-food and fast-casual restaurants (as compared to casual dining and fine dining restaurants.)

“There are a lot of opportunities when it comes to how brands think about their delivery pricing structures,” says Philip Daus, one of the study’s co-authors. “We’ve found that consumers react better to menu price inflation than to an increase of delivery fees. However, there are some menu items—typically the traffic drivers or hero items—with high price recollection and high price sensitivity that need to be treated very carefully. Overall, the trend towards digital and a change in channels opens the door to new, exciting pricing strategies for restaurants.”

Related: Increase your pizzeria’s sales by improving your carryout and curbside game

Sanitization standards, which did not rank highly prior to the pandemic, remain a top purchase criterion, suggesting this value driver is here to stay as a result of COVID-19. The most important sanitization practices center around employee cleaning processes: hand sanitizer for employees, employee handwashing and surface-cleaning frequency.

The study found that food temperature also has increased in importance over the course of the pandemic, reflecting the increase in delivery, app and alternative channel ordering and consumption, which drives awareness of temperature.

“This implies that companies with their own fleet infrastructure can now create a true competitive advantage,” Daus says. “It also gives rise to new business models, such as ‘virtual food courts’ as a group of restaurants brands that relies on their own delivery fleet, creating a superior customer experience.”

Meanwhile, the study predicts that demand for digital ordering will remain high after the pandemic. During the pandemic, apps/websites peaked to 31 percent of all orders (up from 23 percent pre-pandemic). That’s expected to remain elevated, even once all lockdown orders are lifted, at 27 percent of all orders, the same as drive-thru orders.

Not surprisingly, utilization of app/website ordering varies across demographics. Urban, upper-income and young consumer segments anticipate ordering via digital platforms most often after COVID-19, with more than 30 percent of their restaurant orders being made via website/app, according to the study.

Restaurant websites and apps will be more prominent than third-party apps (57 percent vs. 43 percent), especially among quality-focused customers. Usage of delivery and curbside pick-up will remain elevated as well, although it’s expected to drop from current pandemic levels. Consumers also indicate that picking up food in common spaces, such as apartment lobbies and city centers, is increasingly important to them when balancing convenience and health and safety.

Related: What does the future of pizza look like?

The study also looked at the feasibility of ghost kitchens and virtual restaurant brands. “Innovative business models, such as delivery as a service, ghost kitchens, and virtual brands, can help companies grow profitability while meeting new demands of consumers,” said Dave Clement, an industry expert at Simon-Kutcher. “The key will be understanding how consumer preferences and needs vary by segment—age, income, urbanicity—identifying where these consumers are located and differentiating these channel strategies accordingly.”

“The good news for restaurants is that the importance of price has decreased relative to other purchase criteria and there is incremental willingness-to-pay for convenience and cleanliness,” Clement added.

The New Normal for Restaurants: Consumer Behaviors After COVID-19 Lockdowns study was conducted by Simon-Kucher & Partners and Lucid between November 19 and November 24, 2020. The insights were developed based on results of a U.S. survey of 577 restaurant consumers representative of U.S. demographics. The focus was on the QSR and fast-casual restaurant categories

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