May 06, 2021 at 09:03AM

Where some people see chaos, others see opportunity. It has been a defining characteristic of successful companies during the pandemic, during which consumers have come to expect efficiency and convenience more than ever. They have an active desire to engage with the connected economy, as technologies work together to integrate disparate routines into a seamless flow. In the restaurant space, Chipotle has been uniquely positioned to seize this opportunity, with its leading mobile presence, its contextual digital marketing activations and its personalized loyalty programs engaging today’s ultra-online consumers.

“We made investments early on in our tech stack specifically to ensure that we were able to create the right access for our consumers to connect with our brand,” Chipotle Chief Restaurant Officer Scott Boatwright told Karen Webster in a recent interview, as part of PYMNTS’ ConnectedEconomy™ series. “… I tell you, we took inspiration away from Uber on ease of use, and then stole inspiration from Nike around customization to really create what I believe to be a best-in-class app experience.”

The numbers certainly support Boatwright’s claim — by the end of 2020’s fourth quarter, the restaurant chain’s digital sales had grown 177.2 percent year over year, and loyalty membership had more than doubled over the year, growing by 10 million to reach 19.5 million enrolled members.

Designing Around Consumers’ Evolving Needs

“The brand started as this fast casual concept, traditional in-line or in-cap restaurant model,” explained Boatwright, “and it has evolved over the last several years to really meet the needs of the consumer where they are.”

Chipotle has been redesigning stores to better integrate into consumers’ increasingly digital lifestyles. In November, the chain opened its first digital-only store, which functions much like a ghost kitchen, except that it also has a consumer-facing pick-up lobby. Even before this, the chain had started separating its on-site order prep from its digital order prep back in 2016, by Boatwright’s estimation.

“The goal there was to create a unique experience that wasn’t disruptive to the traditional experience inside of our Chipotle restaurants, which I know a lot of brands are facing today, and it creates a friction point, not only for the consumer, but also for the team member,” said Boatwright. “I think it was fortuitous … that we had the ability to see where the consumers were going … and begin to place investments … to ensure we met the needs of the consumer.”

The company also recently announced its intention to include mobile-order drive-thru lanes, Chipotlanes, in 70 percent of new stores, building on the success of its digital channels. Boatwright noted that these lanes were able “to create another access point for the consumer where they didn’t have to get out of their car,” adding that they allow consumers to “get their meal in a matter of seconds.” He believes that these digitally integrated drive-thrus are a “game changer.”

“We now consider that that digital drive-thru of the future,” said Boatwright. “And I know there are a lot of brands today that are larger that have your traditional drive-thru experience that are entrenched … and I think they’re going to struggle.”

Meeting Consumers Where They Are

This goal to “meet the needs of the consumer where they are” extends beyond store design and the Chipotle app experience. It has also involved contextual marketing activations — for instance, partnering with e.l.f. Cosmetics to create burrito-inspired makeup, engaging beauty-conscious consumers at the e-makeup store, and collaborating with global gaming sensation Fortnite to create in-game branded experiences.

Of the latter, Boatwright said, “I don’t know that there’s a better consumer to really target. It’s a growing universe of people who are fanatic about the things that they want in their life. I think Chipotle has a natural extension to the gamer that is obviously probably spending more time in front of their TV sets or computers than they probably should, but are also looking for, you know, brands that they can engage with … This is just a natural extension for us to reach a consumer that as a lot of a lot of affinity for the Chipotle brand already.”

He added that the company is “endeavor[ing] to create a brand that’s a lifestyle brand … we’re showing up in fashion, we’re showing up in sports and entertainment.”

This focus on meeting consumers’ needs across digital channels has been enormously successful, as evidenced by the company’s strong digital performance. Boatwright noted, “When you add in the fact that we’ve leveraged technology in such a unique way, and that our team continues to drive innovation through our technological platforms to ensure that we have a best-in-class experience that is frictionless for our guests, I think we’ve created a pretty significant moat, if you will, around the business today.”

Personalizing The Experience

PYMNTS research has found that personalized digital ecosystems are key to driving digital ordering, meeting consumers’ expectations, encouraging restaurant customers to spend more each month and even converting infrequent customers to loyal fans. Chipotle has always been a leader in the loyalty space, customizing the digital experience based on consumer data.

Boatwright told Webster that “the goal is to really get our light and medium users to a higher frequency.” He added that this goal became especially relevant in the last year, as the app’s user base grew about two-fold to 20 million members. By offering this user base a data-optimized, individualized experience, the restaurant chain can play to its strengths, building relationships and driving loyalty.

“We’re thinking about, how do we personalize the experience, right?” Boatwright said. “And so we’re working to take it beyond a commerce platform, to an engagement platform, where when you come into our program, we can tokenize your experience and then tailor the experience specifically for [you] … You feel like the brand is talking to you personally and meeting your needs in a really unique way … [which] I think is a core competency of our organization.”

Chipotle Moves Beyond The Burrito To Connect Consumers With New Experiences …

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