Before he began using his iPhone to find restaurants, Ian Seffering's strategy when dining out was much more hit-or-miss. If he hadn't scoped out an area beforehand, Seffering would tend to just walk into any nearby restaurant that looked appealing.
"This led to lots of bad experiences (taste, service, atmosphere, etc.) that I can now avoid by pre-screening restaurants with reviews," Seffering said.
As the co-founder of AppStoreHQ, Seffering said using mobile phone applications such as Urbanspoon has changed the way he finds restaurants.
"Now all it takes is pulling out my iPhone, opening the app, and giving it a shake to find a nearby restaurant and learn about the food, atmosphere, and nutrition through reviews before stepping in the door," he said.
Seffering is part of a growing number of consumers turning to their Smartphone screen in order to find the most up-to-date restaurant information. There are an estimated 455 million Smartphones in use throughout the five major markets that include the United States, North Africa and Western Europe. Smartphones — such as the Palm, Blackberry and iPhone — are mobile devices that integrate personal-information management and mobile phone capabilities. To capitalize on the Smartphone's ability to extend a brand's mobile presence, companies such as Pogo Corp. are creating applications that take the order and payment process beyond text messaging and in-store point-of-sale system. A quick search for "restaurants" on the Web site AppStoreHQ pulls up 271 results — from restaurant finders and tip calculators to interactive games and reviews. The applications range in price from free to $59.99. For $4.99, consumers can download the Thai Restaurant Guide and for $9.99 they can access a variety of Michelin guides for restaurants around the world. *Read also, Pizza Finder app available for iPhone. "Google estimates that in four years 70 percent of searches will be done through cell phones and not computers," said Juan Marti, president of Pogo Corp. "We are on our phones all the time and we want to exploit that fact and allow restaurants to have that presence." Pogo launched its MobiDines application during the 2009 National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago. The application gives restaurants the opportunity to have a branded, customized ordering and payment system accessed from any mobile phone device. The application is free to the consumer and provides a richer customer experience, Marti said. A world of options Andrew Datars, VP of Product Management for Empathica, said when Smartphones first appeared, people were thinking more of coupon delivery than other applications; however, "you can build a great application on (the iPhone)."
Applications include global positioning, online ordering and consumer feedback capabilities, which can create a lasting and strong interactive presence with the consumer, he said. He added that iPhones have 50 percent of the Smartphone market and that in the past nine months, more than 1 billion iPhone applications have been downloaded. "It makes it possible to build that really strong connection," Datars said. While text messaging was a new way restaurant operators could reach consumers several years ago, the technology is now viewed by many as outdated. "Restaurants are looking at text not necessarily as a conduit to provide ordering, but really as a marketing method," Marti said. "Customers can give an order, but there is no ability to view the menu. Our focus is to allow restaurateurs to have their restaurant branded in a meaningful way through the phone and independent of texting and e-mail." And as a developer of customer-experience management programs, Empathica now views Smartphone applications as a way to further connect its fast casual clients, such as Quiznos, with customers. "We've been looking at mobile devices and apps in general as a way of building the customer connection," he said. "They're always going to have that cell phone in their pocket."