Fast Food Drivethru

QSRs & COVID – the Mobile Response

Haircuts, holidays, hugs. There are lots of things we’ve all had to live without for the past 4 months. And whilst we may be able to live with a mullet hairstyle indefinitely, the one thing we can’t do without – whatever the crisis or calamity that happens to be going on around us – is food. 

From yearning for some kind of ‘reward’ just for getting through yet another week indoors, to essential workers needing fed on the way to and from their workplace, to simply sticking to some kind of old routine, quick-serve restaurants have been a life – and sanity – saver for many of us as we weather the COVID crisis. Yet with many QSRs having to innovate faster than you can say ‘with fries, please’, just to survive the crisis, maybe we should ask ourselves, hasn’t it always been the case? The ability of the quick-serve restaurant sector to rapidly respond to a continually changing customer landscape, the rapidly changing and technologically-disrupted world, and an increasingly crowded market isn’t new. And while we can’t – and shouldn’t – ignore or make light of the fact that many a food establishment will have closed their doors for good, the QSR sector long ago set itself steadily on its front foot to be able to leap this hurdle, and it’s mostly down to one thing; mobile. 

So as QSRs around the world rush once again to innovate and meet their customers in the ‘next normal’, mobile technology is ready to take another bow in the spotlight, supporting global  efforts to keep customers and employees safe, cultivating much-needed loyalty, and reshaping (yet again) the future of a sector that’s proving extraordinarily adaptable in the face of unprecedented change. Not convinced? Before you read on, let’s take a look at QSR behemoth, Starbucks, and how they’ve almost completely redefined their business in the face of COVID – at breakneck speed and in record time …

  • deploying loyalty offers and digital campaigns through mobile in May to re-engage customers and drive business, leading to “a significant increase” in average weekly downloads and app activations. 
  • implementing new drive thrus, pickup stores, walk-up windows, and curbside-enabled locations – driven by mobile innovations, conversations and transactions.
  • Launching their curbside pickup initiative, allowing customers to pick up from the safety and comfort of their own vehicle, driven by, yup, mobile – providing customers with the option to pay in advance and to check-in at designated parking spots once they arrive.

The key takeaway – with a focus on mobile, it can be done!

QSRs right now – how are things looking?

Here are some pretty interesting stats pulled from a recent Bluedot survey:  

  • 80% of those asked said that they now experience fear or anxiety walking into a store or restaurant. That’s a lot of customers. 
  • But – during the COVID crisis, Gen Z customers have downloaded three times more fast-food apps than groceries apps. 
  • What’s more, 42 per cent of those asked said that they’re ordering food, groceries, and other items via mobile apps more often – or much more often

And while many QSRs are seeing foot traffic decline, many are seeing record mobile orders. Reader, there are, it seems, reasons to be cheerful. 

In our pre-COVID article about QSRs and loyalty, we discussed, amongst other things, the ways in which QSRs are continually innovating through mobile strategies and winning the digital transformation race through the ability to be ultra-flexible, data-driven and future-focused. The results have spoken for themselves – exponential growth for these early mobile adopters focused on delivering exceptional customer experiences and implementing the technology enabling them to do so:

  • Offering personalization that feels genuinely personal, relevant and unique to the customer.
  • Enabling customers to be kept ‘in the loop’ when new products or services are launched
  • Giving customers the ability to get detailed information on products and services
  • Delivering compelling location-based offers 

In order to protect their most reliable revenue sources, QSRs the world over have convened around their virtual tables to revisit their digital transformations and mobile strategies, rapidly restructuring once solid plans to meet the disruptions the sector is currently facing. 

In our previous article COVID-19 impact on Customer Engagement & Loyalty Programs, we talked about the need for all industries to plan for either resetting pre-COVID customer habits as things return to some semblance of normality – or, reinforcing new behaviors formed during the crisis. Behaviors that may well now be habits that business is going to have to adapt to if it’s to weather the current storms and emerge stronger. 

For example, amongst the top QSR mobile apps – Chipotle,  McDonald’s, Domino’s,  Burger King, and Pizza Hut – there’s been a whopping 36% year-on-year increase in the number of app store reviewers during COVID indicating it was their first time using such an app. If that usage turns into a habit – and it will for many – then we can expect long-term implications for the QSR mobile strategy. But what of right now – how is mobile already powering longevity for QSRs post-COVID? 

A word about contactless …

Like it or not, one thing that we can be sure of is the growing demand for contactless – in whatever we do. When it comes to spending money, even without the calamity of COVID, lots of us enjoy and prefer contactless transactions. But in summer 2020, worried about food deliveries being made by strangers, exchanging physical money, and handing over the 20” calzone with extra cheese, QSR customers are making the contactless preference an increasingly pressing one. We want drive-thru, curbside or venue pick-up – and we want to do it with our own devices in our own hands. 

Of course, we’re highly likely to be operating in contactless environments for some time – and though that’s about much more than simply ordering and collecting, the mobile component will remain a key driver of preparedness – QSRs that were already well underway with their digital transformations pre-COVID are going to find themselves much better placed to deal with the current situation and the rapidly changing future. OK – let’s take a look at what contactless is looking like from the mobile perspective right now:

  • Mobile menus – Digital menus have been growing in popularity long before COVID, but they’re about to become ubiquitous across the sector as we look to avoid handling anything that hundreds of strangers have had their ketchup-covered hands on before we got to it. Using their smartphones, mobile menus mean customers can browse menus on their phones in-venue and pay for their food at the same time … But more than that, there’s real opportunity here to both assuage customer anxieties, keep them safe and provide valuable information through the mobile menu experience that can cement loyalty – for example, where is their food being prepared? Where has it come from? How is it prepared in a way that keeps everyone safe and healthy? Expect the mobile menu to be BIG – and expect to see further innovations in the area as more of us return to the in-venue eating experience.
  • Ordering – projected to drive over 10% of QSR sales this year, mobile-based food ordering has fast been adopted as the safe way to get in the Friday night takeaway – it’s safe and convenient for customers, and is being rapidly adopted across the sector by these consumers and QSRs – powered by mobile technology. A great example of an enterprise crushing the mobile ordering is Allset, reacting quickly to reimagine its capabilities for contactless pickup – think information about designated ‘safe’ pickup areas, alongside its new “No contact” badge feature within the app which allows customers to identify the restaurants that are offering contactless experiences. 
  • Pickup – In a re-imagined and optimized order pickup process powered by mobile, customers can be advised when to arrive at the collection point, can be notified when their order is ready, alerted that their delivery is on the way or, flipping it on its head, the vendor can be notified  that the customer has arrived at the collection point (thanks to geofencing technology). No contact required during any of these scenarios.
  • Delivery – similar to the above, QSRs can notify customers when their food is in transit, along with an expected delivery time. Customers can also advise the restaurant their preferred ‘drop off point’ to avoid any face-to-face contact, and can ‘send’ a gratuity via their app. We call that a win-win!

As ever increasing numbers of QSRs begin to address contactless, they’ll quickly discover that embracing the myriad ‘contactless’ benefits that mobile delivers also provides them with the opportunities to engage in new ways with their customers, providing the safe, efficient services they require – and using the new two-way communication avenues available to power data-driven innovations in the new climate. Here are a few other key areas where mobile technologies have a place to play in the new world order and the benefits they’re bringing to an industry ready to embrace change …

Track and Trace

In some countries it has become mandatory for businesses to collect the contact information of customers so that they can be tracked if they may have been exposed to a confirmed case. It’s being implemented so far in the UK, France, Italy, Australia amongst others and is highly likely to be adopted by more countries and will start to become the staple of virus control.

Whilst businesses move towards the use of mobile apps to help manage the new normal, it makes for a seamless customer experience to offer this as a feature within the app. If consumers are aware that QSR’s are offering this service through their app it can not only encourage new downloads but prevent churn and present opportunities to connect with new downloads. A track and trace app feature is capable of using automation to message a user informing them if there was a link from the premises to a confirmed virus case. Customers will look to these companies as those that are being socially responsible and doing their utmost to offer peace of mind. Certainly a feature that might reduce that sky-high percentage of anxious customers.

Conversational AI

The growth of conversational AI – or the chatbot –  as an essential element of enterprise digital transformation in 2020 isn’t surprising:

  • 37% of people use a customer service bot to get a quick answer in emergencies.
  • Nearly a quarter of the world’s population was using chatbots during 2019
  • Over 15% of service organizations will be using chatbots within the next 18 months – though this will likely increase ‘thanks’ to COVID
  • Chatbots can cut operational costs by up to 30%.
  • 85% of customer interactions will be handled without human agents by 2021

These chatbots are a key element of any loyalty program worth its salt, however, this was all pre-COVID. How we interact with brands now – and how they respond – is changing rapidly … meaning we’re likely to see a very different set of figures come the close of 2020. 

Apple Business Chat and Google Business Messaging already allow businesses to have conversations with their customers – thru native apps direct from search listings, Contact Us details, Google Maps, and more. In many ways, this has been a game-changer, particularly during COVID – new customers don’t have to download your app or pick up their phone to speak to someone on premise (or otherwise) who can help. What does that mean? For the customer, convenience; for the QSR, a perfect opportunity to capture new custom through a seamless, effortless, frictionless customer experience, nurturing them to loyal customers that will hang around post-COVID. Customers can simply message in their order, pay in the same way, and schedule their pickup time – without having to talk to anyone. Result!

But there are other ways in which the humble chatbot can support and cultivate loyalty. Throughout this crisis, chatbots offer the savvy QSR the ability to deliver critical information to their customers in ways that reassure, reaffirm and realign with new needs and expectations. So for example, customers can chat with a bot which can:

  • Provide information on COVID opening hours
  • Schedule orders for them at times most convenient to the customer
  • Take payments to uphold contactless transactions – the favorite way to pay for anything and everything right now
  • … and relay critical information regarding safety restrictions both in-store, at drive-thru points and curbside pick-ups (more on that in a bit … )

But perhaps the most beneficial element that Conversational AI brings to the dinner table is the unparalleled insights into customer sentiments and behaviors gleaned from the rich data collected from chatbot interactions, enabling businesses to continually refine and reimagine their digital strategy in line with rapidly evolving customer needs. The ability to be this agile means the ability to better future-proof – even when we can’t see what that future looks like right now.

QR Codes

QR codes, one could say, have never really caught on in a big way – but that could be about to change. The humble QR code has the ability to turn our smartphones into all manner of tools that can support our need for safe, healthy environments as we weather the COVID fallout. Interestingly, they’ve got a lot to offer the QSR sector. From providing the means to download and view that mobile menu we mentioned earlier, to seamless integration with ordering systems, QRs are about to enjoy their moment in the QSR spotlight – here are a few ways we’ll see them do it:

  • QR codes positioned at self-service counters mean customers can have visibility of a restaurant’s health and safety procedures before they order – think  sanitization routines, how and where food is being prepared, where food is coming from, how to stay minimize health risks … and much more. 
  • Mobile menus accessible via QR codes – KFC in China – and numerous others – are already taking advantage of the technology, and are likely to maintain it over the long-term. 
  • QR codes are another way to keep your costumers informed during uncertain times – codes strategically places on ads, packaging, websites or apps can provide the opportunity to engage with customers, delivering relevant, valuable information and – you guessed it! – driving that loyalty you’re seeking to build. 
  • Contactless paymentspayments via QR codes help do all that contactless stuff we talked about above. 

Push notifications

According to a recent study of over two billion app installs, users have been  quicker to click on push notifications than they were before the current crisis kicked off. What’s more, direct open rates for mobile app push notifications reached their highest average rate in more than four years. The resulting increase in the number of push notifications being sent by businesses saw direct open rates increase by an average of 22% for apps and 119% for websites. Not to be scoffed at! So where might the QSR look to get the most out of Kumulos-favorite, the humble push notification as we head into that next normal? 

  • Focusing on areas that experienced the biggest declines during the crisis – such as Sunday coffee, breakfast on the way to work, takeaway lunches etc. – should be a key focus in driving these ‘old habits’ we mentioned earlier. 
  • Think about using push to entice customers to return to the on-premise dining experience (where appropriate) with relevant, personalized promotions and new menu offerings. 
  • Consumers are already demanding new information about the food they’re ordering – where it’s prepared, where it’s come from, who’s prepared it and how it will reach us safely. Push notifications are the perfect way to provide that information, reassuring customers before they order, driving transparency, trust, and by default, that loyalty that’s so important for future growth. 


With many countries now in the process of staggered re-opening, QSRs rethinking their near and long-term futures will be swinging their doors again, waiting with open arms, for the first time in a long time. Some are fully focused on take-out, deliveries and curbside provision. Others still will be running hybrid operations, aiming to cover all bases in an attempt to chart a course through these tough economic waters. What’s certain is that every QSR business is navigating unchartered waters with no clear view of the horizon ahead. 

Bottom line? As the challenges that COVID has brought continue to redefine the QSR industry, restaurants must start thinking now about their long-term mobile-driven strategy to future-proof, whatever the outlook. And whilst none of us can be sure about how this crisis will change customer behaviour, one thing we can be sure of is that the faster brands can advance their digital strategy to meet uncertainty however it manifests, the more certain their future will be. Agility and flexibility are key -along with the willingness to continue exploring new business strategies – but the sector is very good at that, and the future feels full of opportunities.

Kumulos and innovating your QSR app for success

With the uncertainty of what the future looks like for dining at physical locations, we can be sure that mobile will play a clear part in the customer journey from now onward. Kumulos offer a mobile communications platform that improves the customer experience and help you retain your app users. Send rich, interactive push notifications and in-app messages to one specific customer, all app users or define any demographic in-between. Use geofencing and beacon technology to highly target your audience and reach the right users at the right place and time. Turn your mobile app from an accessory to a necessity and capitalize before your competitors.

As the use of mobile apps becomes a permanent fixture of QSR dining, why not stay ahead of the curve and try Kumulos today? Book your free demo or trial and see for yourself how Kumulos can innovate your app for success.