Providing a mobile experience for customers may seem like a daunting, expensive task to many restaurant operators, but it doesn't have to be. Various technologies are available to make the process easy.
Eric Jaffe, a co-founder of ChowNow, a mobile ordering system, said mobile ordering is growing because customers expect to use their phones for everything, plus costs of the technology are decreasing.
"Mobile phone users are displaying a heavy bias toward engaging socially and commercially via mobile apps," he said. "You have to provide an appropriate response to consumer demands. If you don't, you will be suffering from a competitive disadvantage."
Rushing to a mobile launch without planning is a mistake, however. Jaffe recommends asking potential vendors several questions:
Choosing between an app and a mobile website
Many restaurant operators think developing specific iPhone or Android is their only option, said Dave Hoffman, director of consumer solutions at Micros, a company that develops POS and enterprise software.
"They always want to jump into platform specific apps, but you gotta step back and look at the demographics," he said. "Do your customers have smartphones, or are you a popular café in South Florida where the average customer age is 65 plus? An app may not fit."
Also, a mobile website is cheaper than an app and a better option for search-engine optimization, according to Nash Sherchan of Marketing Restaurant Online, a company that helps restaurants with mobile marketing. He said mobile websites can be built on Wordpress with specific search words, such as "Italian," "Restaurant" and "NewYork," for example.
"This is not possible in apps," he said.
There are major benefits to apps, however. They store customer information from each phone, including location and order history and can also quickly load graphics, coupons and games.
Why choose when you can have both?
Jaffe and Sherchan agreed that restaurant owners should create apps and mobile websites, but small chains can't always afford both. However, there's no excuse for not having at least a page.
"A website, even if it's informational and has no further functionality, is very inexpensive to create and maintain, and regardless of functionality, should be a core tool for a restaurant's operation," Jaffe said.
The best practice is to first build a mobile website and then create an app that users can find when they are searching for restaurants, Sherchan said.
A good service provider should offer a solution optimized for tablets, too.
"iPhones are actually only a piece of the marketplace," Jaffe said. "Android users have a tremendous amount of market share, and many customers will not be able to engage with a restaurant operator if he or she is only offering an iPhone app."
Size it right
Simply shrinking your company's existing PC-based website to fit on a mobile screen won't cut it.
"It must be a site optimized for a phone, or it's going to be clunky and won't be useful," Sherchan said. "You don't need everything on a mobile site that is on a regular website. All those extra graphics and info will slow everything down."
In fact, consumers are 51 percent more likely to purchase from retailers who have mobile-specific websites, according to the Mobile Shopper session at the National Retail Federation's 2011 tradeshow.
"It's all about navigating the site quickly and easily," Sherchan said
For example, if Jon from England is visiting New York, he'll use his phone to search for nearby restaurants, then find contact info and directions.
"You have to make it easy, so with one click he can call the restaurant," Sherchan said. "He needs to be able to also get the directions so easily that he won't have to type in your address. There should be an embedded code that he can click on and go there."
Marketing is key
Enticing a hungry consumer is also an important part of a successful mobile experience. For example, if a tourist is simply searching for "Italian" or "Mexican" a list of restaurants will pop up, so it's important to give that customer a reason to try your business.
"You need to have email and text marketing integrated, so Jon from England can enter his email or send a text to receive a free glass of wine or appetizer," Sherchan said. "Attract him with a deal."
Having a customer opt-in for a freebie also provides the restaurant database with his information, allowing for future marketing opportunities.
An order, whether it's coming from e-mail, phone or a waiter should look the same to avoid confusion and mistakes, Hoffman said. Also, employees will have to go through the extra step of physically entering orders into the POS system if integration is lacking.
Hoffman advises operators to ask vendors to prove they know how to integrate their systems with the restaurant's specific POS systems.
"You can't rely on that unless they show you some customer references and you see that's it's seamlessly working," he said.
Time and cost
The costs of implementing mobile sites range from a few hundred dollars to $1 million. Custom elements like the apps offered by Domino's Pizza and Chipotle, may require months of development and testing and may cost between $100,000 and $1,000,000.
However, if only a limited amount of branding and functionality is required there may only be a few days of development time.
ChowNow's basic service that includes ordering applications on all mobile platforms, Facebook and websites is $89 per month. Premium features are extra, and there is a one-time set up fee of $149. That also includes the 7-inch ChowNow POS tablet to allow operators to receive orders and quickly respond, Jaffe said.
MICROS also has a range of prices, Hoffman said.
"If you want a different app for the Android, iPhone, etc., each individual app is going to add some level of expense," he said. "The app side can go from $10,000 to $50,000."
Sites, Hoffman said, usually cost operators less than $1,000 if they have solid brand guidelines and digital marketing materials MICROS can use. If not, the company can help restaurants develop those tools for additional fees.
Other startups are popping up to help smaller chains. Web2mobile's recently launched platform, FiddleFly, runs between $250 and $500 and is easy to use, said CEO Alex Kutsishin.
"If you can send an email with an attached photo, you can do set up a mobile site in less than 10 minutes," he said.
Although it's easy enough for restaurant operators to use, Kutsishin said he pairs them up with professionals who create the sites for them with no added charge. However, those affiliates can sell more in-depth services, such as mobile couponing and paying.
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Cover photo: Mobile websites designed by Fiddlefly.