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Olive Garden’s new mobile-ordering experience cannot compete

Olive Garden announced a new mobile-ordering To Go experience as part of its ongoing brand renaissance, but the browser-based platform could place the chain at a disadvantage compared with the competition, which has embraced more consumer-friendly applications for the most part.

Analytics firm Flurry recently published data concerning mobile usage by U.S. consumers, revealing that while users are increasingly engaging with handhelds on average of 2 hours and 42 minutes per day, only 22 minutes are spent in the browser, with a large majority of time focused on apps. The Italian-American chain from Darden Restaurants has made what could be a critical error as its approach to pre-ordering does not signify a strategy to deal with app users, though the brand insists it is making broader foundational changes to evolve the guest experience.

“Not having anything on the app side of mobile commerce is a mistake, as Olive Garden is relying on its responsive Web design for ordering and payment and is not implementing an ewallet or similar collateral to pay to the level of its competitors,” said Steve Timpson, president at Siteminis, Atlanta.

“Mobile Web goes to a certain point, but when you’re dealing with payments you need to consider an app as a natural growth opportunity.”

“Darden could step this up a lot for a small cost, as they are behind based on their size and scope,” he said.

Mr. Timpson is not associated with Olive Garden and commented based on his expertise in mobile solutions.

Forget about it
The national launch of online To Go allows guests to order meals digitally or via mobile for car-side pick-up with prepayment, and offers typical features such as coupons, the ability to save favorite orders and schedule pickups days in advance.

While mobile Web provides wider access, the app model has triumphed because of its superior user experience.

Fishing for answers

As consumers cite restaurant and food research as one of their top activities on mobile, there is no avoiding the effect device usage and trends have on the industry. Greater mobile connectivity opens access to new consumer targets, keeps brands relevant in today’s retail environment and gives them access to new tools they can use to add convenience.

Alongside app offerings is mobile marketing, which is delivering a significant boost for some brands. Money-losing Red Lobster, another spawn of Darden, was spun off in December and had its marketing budget slashed.

At the same time that other casual, full-service restaurant chains such as Outback Steakhouse, Chili’s and Applebee’s are committing to mobile marketing, Red Lobster has remained loyal to a strategy of lavish – and expensive – television ads featuring close-ups of steaming hot plates of food. With Red Lobster’s sales down around 4.6 percent, Darden is looking for a solution, and mobile should be on the menu.

As more consumers switch over to fast-casual restaurants such as Chipotle and Panera Bread, mobile could also help Red Lobster and Olive Garden drive loyalty with their customers. Chili’s and T.G.I. Fridays are both using mobile to reward loyal customers and keep them coming back.

Building a mobile strategy as part of a fully integrated media strategy could take them to the next phase of their business. Continuing to use television as a medium that can drive consumers online, in store and to mobile would make for a strong part of a successful campaign for both brands.

Mobile could help with ordering, making reservations or introducing consumers to new dishes, or could be about discovery by location or time of day with geo-location campaigns flighted by day part and eating occasions.

However, with consumers already embracing fast casual-restaurants such as Chipotle and Panera Bread, it is not clear how much help mobile could give Darden.

Panera’s optimized app ordering system

“For any restaurant, especially a chain, an app is extra important because operators are able to capture customers and shoot more offers and loyalty efforts to keep people coming back,” Mr. Timpson said.

“In its fourth quarter earnings last year Starbucks earned 1.3 billion dollars of business through mobile gift cards. They apply scan and pay, a mobile wallet and other technologies that make its app easy to use—that’s where brands earn user points and maintain relationships.”

“This may be a baby step so Olive Garden can start learning stuff they may apply to mobile in the future, but they haven’t taken it to the next step and are missing the boat in accelerating in the loyalty process,” he said.

“While they do have an email-based program, it doesn’t have the same effect as in-app notifications.”

Final Take
Michelle is editorial assistant on Mobile Commerce Daily, New York