According to recent reports, the road to recovery is something of a long slow walk as consumers remain hesitant to get back out there. Even as vaccines are rolling out, hesitancy persists as consumers continue to feel safer just staying at home. But as new PYMNTS/American Express data demonstrates, that fear is beginning to show some signs of ebbing. In January, only 44 percent of consumers reported feeling comfortable dining in a restaurant, but by the end of February that had increased to 51 percent. However, by March that figure had dipped back down to 44 percent.
It’s a bit of a roller coaster to watch — and for restaurateurs to experience. But as American Express Vice President and General Manager Curtis Wilson told PYMNTS in a recent conversation, it is a situation that is on the incline these days, even if the pace of recovering can be frustrating. We’re getting there, he said, and the end is in sight, even if it still feels far off from this vantage point.
“There is still much to be learned about the long-term trajectory of the industry with this pandemic taking place and how it will impact the customer experience going forward,” Wilson said. “Currently about 30 percent have received their first dose of the vaccine and the vaccination rates are steadily rising. So that’s all a good sign. We expect to see a steady increase in frequency as people feel more comfortable stopping in to eat and seating levels are going to start to rise. I believe that Q3 and Q4 of 2021 and going into 2022 we’re going to see big progress.”
That progress, he said, will be powered by the digital tools that restaurateurs have embraced over the last year. Embracing technology is no longer really a choice for those competing in the radically shifting dining landscape. Restaurants need digitized solutions for marketing, contact information, provisioning the menu and customer communication. Every player, he said, needs to optimize payments processing and outflow, because those are the kinds of improvements that allow mobile ordering, mobile perks and rewards programs delivered in a digitized format to provide maximum easy accessibility for consumers.
The work, he said, is challenging, particularly when it comes to being sure that the new embrace of technology is both a “front of the house” and a “back of the house” undertaking. It’s a lot to ask restaurateurs who’ve already been through difficult year and stand at the precipice of taking on recovering in a radically altered environment. They are going to need help, Wilson said, which is something Amex is committed to offering them.
Some of that help will come from channels American Express has already developed — like its “Shop Small” program that happens annually in November around Thanksgiving. But, he said, there have also been specific measures taken in 2020 and 2021 that have seen American Express looking to grow “the value of our card member experience” in everyday purchases. To that end, Wilson said, Amex has provided limited time offers relative to different types of industries that by the end of 2020, 70 percent of Platinum, 60 percent of Small Business and 40 percent of Cobrand card members had taken advantage of. The goal there, he said, is twofold. First, it delivers value to card members by meeting them where they are to make their purchasing easier. Second, it drives business to Amex merchants just when they need it.
And beyond those offers, he said, Amex has also looked to more directly intervene to help enhance merchants’ situations.
“We actually launched a backing of historical small restaurants where we looked at twenty-five historical and culturally significant restaurants around the U.S. that will be chosen to receive a $40,000 grant in May,” Wilson said. “We’re really proud of that. We’ve always been a part of the restaurant industry and we both benefit from it. These grants will help improve and upgrade and preserve the physical space of these restaurants and hopefully mitigate any existing operational costs that they’ve incurred during this timeframe.”
Because even when things are back to normal over the next several weeks and months, the normal that is coming back will in many ways be a wholly new experience. In a future where QR codes and kiosks are in regular use, for example, the customer experience will simply be more streamlined in a way that lets everyone involved in the transaction win. The customer gets their order faster and more easily, and it helps restaurants flip tables more quickly and serve a larger volume of customers.
Moreover, Wilson said, the digital shift lives up to consumer expectations for the experience. It not only makes them comfortable, it makes them happy, the emotion that every restaurateur wants to serve up more than any other.
“Digital payments are coming on many fronts, and it’s important to embrace them without penalty or adding an extra fee at checkout,” Wilson said. “All of that’s a part of the new experience as it comes to retail, restaurant, and grocery. They’re all part of the same newly digitized operating system.”
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