Restaurants make a major shift in their apps, adding surprises to lure customers

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Panera goes a step further, taking its rewards act to grocery stores

To cut back on staff and move towards more automation, many restaurants and fast food chains are ratcheting up a new round of efforts to get diners to download and use apps as their default method for ordering.

The carrot they’re dangling? Surprises.

In one instance ConsumerAffairs recently witnessed, McDonald’s was offering free French fries to app users. Two other chains that have bought into the surprise-and-delight concept are Jimmy John’s, The Cheesecake Factory, Pret A Manger, and Panda Express.

Salad chain Sweetgreen is taking a two-pronged approach using a free level called Sweetpass and a paid level called Sweetpass+ that includes free merchandise and first access to new menu items.

Others – like Chipotle – are straddling the fence a bit, adding perks like Freepotle to its rewards programs. And Chipotle found considerable gold in that Preepotle hill, too, picking up enough new enrollees to bring its Rewards members total to 33 million.

Chains are also taking to the idea to separate themselves from their competitors' earn-and-burn loyalty points programs. “The concept of ‘surprise and delight’ drives loyalty with customers because it offers them something beyond what they’ve grown to expect, creating memorable moments and bringing them closer to the brand,” a spokesperson for Sweetgreen told Nations Restaurant News (NRN).

The give and take

Loyalty rewards programs have recently come into question regarding the value they actually offer to the consumer, and one thing app users are going to have to understand is that a chain has to manage the cost of a free perk against its bottom line.

It’s doubtful McDonald’s is going to waste $6.79 on a Big Breakfast when it might be able to spice up a deal with free fries, a dollar soft drink, coffee, or a treat. These food companies are probably already wrestling with how this dance will have to be choreographed if they want it to last, too.

“When you’re going to get a coupon or a special reward that you don’t know about, and you don’t necessarily know how you're going to get up to that point, it could be exciting for the consumer,” Brad Jashinsky, director analyst at research and consulting firm Gartner, told NRN. 

“But it's also limiting to a certain point because you're not necessarily going to get a consumer to do that extra visit because they’re close to getting a reward.”

Panera tries a different approach

Panera has been one of the most aggressive in the loyalty game, adding personalized rewards to its MyPanera loyalty program members, and rolling out an annual membership for its Unlimited Sips beverage subscription program.

Now, supposedly happy with having its at-store lures running successfully, the company is moving into the grocery aisle to expand its portfolio of rewards and benefits.

Any customer who buys $20 of Panera consumer packaged goods products – such as ready-to-go soups, bowls, dressings, and breads – at Kroger, Publix, or Walmart will receive a $5 gift card to use in-store.

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