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Frontline Quick-Service Restaurant Workers Favored Over Technology by Consumers

57 percent of consumers believe restaurant employees have more control over their experience than the brand itself

Published: Tuesday, October 12, 2021 - 11:02

Labor demand is continuing to outstrip labor supply by a wider margin despite record job openings. The hospitality industry is just one industry taking hard hits, with some restaurants reporting temporarily closing or cutting hours due to the labor shortage. But just as restaurants look to robotics, apps, and digital tools to fill the voids in the frontline workforce, consumers are pressing pause, expressing their desire for more human experiences.

Big Red Rooster, a JLL company, recently assessed the quick-service restaurant (QSR) customer experience, finding employees as essential drivers of the brand experience. Despite ongoing pressures on labor availability to meet the returning demand for on-premise dining, drive-through, and pick-up/carry-out orders, just one in five consumers report a decline in service over the past six months. The decline is more than offset by the one in four consumers who report improved service during the same time period.

“Even in the age of online ordering and curbside pickup, humans have a major impact on brand experience,” says Emily Albright Miller, senior vice president of strategy at Big Red Rooster. “As brands and operators look forward, they should consider how to leverage well-trained employees in key moments where human assistance can be reassuring—such as a custom order, or a moment of connection—such as presenting an order.”

With 57 percent of consumers believing that restaurant employees have the most control over the experience, these findings present challenges to owners and operators. And now with more baby boomers retiring—a phenomenon accelerated by the pandemic—labor supply growth is slowing further. For the first time in U.S. history the growth rate of the working-age population (people aged 16 to 64) has consistently turned negative. Between this demographic change, pandemic relief incentives, and a workforce migration from QSR into industries that offer more benefits and flexibility, businesses are increasingly looking to investments in technology because of labor scarcity.

Yet as of today, the majority of consumers prefer working with staff during all moments of the QSR experience: 54 percent for navigating the menu, 59 percent for customizing orders, 50 percent for paying for the order, and 63 percent for receiving the order. Just 18 percent of consumers said that incorporating technology to reduce reliance on employees would be one of the top three things brands can do to impact service. Unsurprisingly, Millennials and Gen Z are more likely to prefer tech, with Gen Z preferring it most. In fact, the percentage of tech preference across the quick-serve experience declines as age increases. Still, 40–50 percent of Gen Z prefer staff across all moments.

“Technology should absolutely be in the pipeline, but it’s not an immediate answer,” says Miller. “So how do we strike that balance? What’s missing most is care. Just 25 percent of consumers rated QSR brands excellent in making them feel cared for as a guest on their recent visit. Above all, this reiterates the importance of human connection on brand experience.”

Chick-fil-A for example sees its focus on human interaction pay off as it consistently performed above the brands included in the study on key service attributes. At least 30 percent of recent Chick-fil-A customers rated the brand excellent on each of the key service attributes, which includes employee mood, friendliness, attentiveness, competence, hygiene, and feeling cared for as a guest. The brand’s excruciatingly close attention to the consumer experience is often cited as the reason consumers keep coming back for more. Recently Chick-fil-A topped the fast-food industry in customer satisfaction for the seventh consecutive year, scoring an American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) score of 83 out of 100. Culver’s is another strong example of a brand successfully managing the employee-related experience drivers, according to the Big Red Rooster survey.

The Big Red Rooster survey also highlighted ways to make attentiveness and friendliness translate to a feeling of care. When asked to rank what would most impact fast food/QSR service, the following actions garnered the most top-three rankings:
• 52 percent said increasing the number of staff during peak traffic times
• 48 percent said increasing wages/pay for employees
• 45 percent said improved coaching/training for employees
• 42 percent said recognizing and rewarding outstanding service

“While the pandemic proved to be an accelerator for digital touch points, not all of them are easy, reliable, or robust enough to handle the personalization consumers expect,” says Miller. “In an earlier 2021 study we conducted on consumer control, 55 percent of consumers reported going to physical stores to connect with, ask questions, or get help from employees in person. Technology is accelerating, but the human component of the physical space remains a source of comfort and a key trip driver in retail.”

About the study

Big Red Rooster kicked off 2021 with a thought leadership series meant to understand evolved consumer behaviors and expectations, especially as they relate to the role of real estate in a brand’s marketing mix. The Q2 study was conducted in partnership with ENGINE Insights and included a CARAVAN survey with 1,003 demographically representative U.S. adults 18 years of age and older.

Brands included in this study represented multiple sectors of fast food/QSR and included: Chick-fil-A, Chipotle, Culver’s, Jack in the Box, Krispy Kreme, McDonald’s, Papa John’s, Starbucks, and Taco Bell.

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