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Contactless Service May Ease Consumer Fears Around COVID-19

Consumers’ fears surrounding eating in restaurants continues to grow, per new research from Datassential. Just over a quarter (27%) of consumers surveyed plan to avoid eating at restaurants (up 8% since Datassential’s first survey on March 10); 41% of consumers are still nervous about eating out but still plan to do so (up 2%); and 32% of consumers have no concerns about eating in restaurants (down 10%). The increased fear persists across demographic groups, with particularly large spikes among Boomers (+12%) and Gen X (+9%).

When it comes to dining out, 38% of consumers surveyed by Datassential expressed concern about touching shared objects — countertops, napkin dispensers, chairs, cash and other surfaces that may feel almost unavoidable and 28% expressed concern about being near other people. In contrast, only 15% of consumers expressed concern about staff handling food, and just 7% were concerned about interacting with restaurant staff.

The results suggest restaurants should look to shift to a touch-free environment and eliminate as many contact points as possible while also using gloves and other protective measures to minimize the potential for transmission. Many restaurant chains are already starting to take these steps.

Earlier this week, for example, Just Salad announced it will utilize tamper-proof packaging as it switches to contactless delivery. Starbucks temporarily shifted to a “to go” model of service, the chain said it may also move designated pickup areas for customers who order by its app to help reduce contact points.

A chain with one of the more thorough definitions and approaches to contactless service is Jeni’s ice cream shops. To eliminate the possibility of direct touch between employees and customers, Jeni’s take on contactless service includes no flavor sampling and eliminating cones, with the chain instead opting to serve scoops of ice cream in compostable bowls. In other words, the chain has suspended any menu item that an employee has to hand directly to a customer. In addition, Jeni’s has stopped accepting cash payments and will wipe down point-of-sale touch screens after every use.

While such changes are designed to help make dining out more appealing in the short-term, it may not matter to some consumers. Roughly 47% of consumers surveyed by Datassential say they have stocked up on essentials, which shows an inclination toward riding out this public health crisis in their homes. When it comes to stocking up, consumers have done so across every food and beverage category. They’ve loaded up on dried goods, canned foods, frozen foods, shelf-stable beverages, fresh produce and even meat and seafood.

Interestingly, consumers see risk in all forms of food prepared outside of the home, with self-serve salad bars at restaurants and self-serve food bars at grocery stores being the riskiest. They find meal kits to be the option that carries the least amount of risk, followed by takeout food and drive-thrus.