Bloomin’ Brands Inc. plans to double its digital staff in the coming year as it moves on several initiatives designed to ultimately boost sales and speed service.
In the coming year, the company plans to release a new smartphone app and will decide whether to put tablets on tables at the chain’s restaurants — which include Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Bonefish Grill and Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar.
The Tampa-based casual-dining operator has already introduced systems to give customers the ability to make reservations, check wait times and put themselves on wait lists, and order and pay for to-go items online.
“We are making a significant investment in digital and technology to capture that across the portfolio,” Bloomin’ Brands CEO Liz Smith said at the company’s Analyst Day presentation earlier this week.
In September, Bloomin’ Brands appointed Donagh Herlihy as its executive vice president, digital and chief information officer after he led e-commerce efforts at Avon.
Bloomin’ Brands’ efforts illustrate what is increasingly becoming a digital arms race in the restaurant industry, as big chains add touch-screen and mobile technology to improve service and efficiency. In the past year, Panera Bread and Starbucks have announced major digital efforts. And more recently, The Wendy’s Co. and McDonald’s Corp. have vowed to make investments in customer-facing technology.
The efforts are a major change in an industry that has been traditionally known for lagging on the technology front. But customers’ technology expectations are changing, and restaurants are under pressure to find ways to make their restaurants more efficient and effective amid rising costs and weak demand.
“It isn’t a necessity today,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at the restaurant consulting firm Technomic. “But it will be tomorrow. The younger consumer as they experience technology, they begin to expect it. And if you don’t provide it, you lose that relevance factor.”
Bloomin’s efforts span different technologies and strategies. Smith said at the Analyst Day that the efforts should benefit each of the company’s four brands.
Last year, the company did extensive research on consumers’ dining-out efforts and developed what Smith called a “digital road map” to guide the company’s plans to add technology in its restaurants. Bloomin’ surveyed thousands of customers and gathered more than a dozen focus groups and generated more than 1,000 ideas as part of that effort.
The company looked for different ways it could use technology to eliminate “pain points” in the restaurant experience. One of the biggest pain points is the wait list, so Outback and Carrabba’s created a virtual wait list where customers can go online, check the list, and put their names on it.
“One of our biggest barriers to entry is that [customers] don’t want to wait,” said Jeff Smith, president of Outback Steakhouse. “This technology has removed that.”
The company’s restaurants also introduced online ordering and payment to speed to-go orders and increase order size. Curbside ordering is a good business for the company’s chains, and at the moment, about 80 percent of that business comes by phone, Herlihy said.
Yet when customers go online and order, they spend more time perusing the menu, and they order more. Orders are 25-percent larger when they’re placed online versus the phone, executives said.
What restaurants are talking about
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Outback, meanwhile, is testing tabletop tablets. That’s a huge trend in the restaurant industry at the moment. “You can almost call it a fad,” Herlihy said. “Everybody is talking about putting tabletop tablets in casual dining. You’re seeing it all over the place.”
Outback will continue testing those tablets in the first half of the year, when it will examine whether to enable full-menu ordering on them or just include appetizers, drinks and desserts. The company said it expects to decide by the end of the first half of the year.
Boomin’ Brands is also developing a smartphone app to give customers a “remote control” for their dining experience, Herlihy said. It would enable customers to check wait times and make reservations, order either at the table or when they wait for their order, and enable them to pay.
Both tablets and the smartphone app would give customers more control over their visits, Herlihy said. Customers, he said, want to be able to manage the “pace” of their experience.
“You get to the restaurant, you’re waiting for a table, you’re being taken to the table you’re waiting for the server, you’re waiting for food, you’re eating, and then you’re waiting to pay,” he said. “There’s a lot of waiting.”
Bloomin’ Brands also plans to expand its loyalty program, DINE Rewards, into new markets in the first half of the year. The program is in five test markets and has 220,000 members. It’s a program that, along with email marketing, enables the company to continue to connect with customers after they leave the restaurant.
“Customers want to be recognized for their visits,” Herlihy said. “They want to be rewarded.”
Contact Jonathan Maze at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter at @jonathanmaze