Fast food app-ocalypse?
Smart phones have opened up a whole new channel for customer engagement that businesses are pursuing with gusto. But has the desire to develop an 'app' quickly come at the expense of carefully considered content? The launch of Burger King's new app provides the ideal invitation to see what's cooking in m-commerce.
A new means to engage with customers is a rare and precious thing for any commercial enterprise. It's little wonder therefore that major players in the retail and hospitality industries have sought to harness the potential offered them by the explosion in popularity of smartphones. From their point of view what's not to love about iPhone apps or their Android equivalents? For relatively little capital outlay businesses have the opportunity to place perfectly packaged, fully updatable sales and marketing messages into the pockets of potential customers.
Like social media platforms, mobile apps are in the vanguard of the current technological zeitgeist. Having an app right now is a declaration that a company is keeping itself, if you will forgive the hackneyed phrase, at the cutting edge. The impetus to develop an app is thus particularly great at the moment, both from a commercial and branding standpoint - much as it was to build a website 10-15 years ago. Indeed the more you look into mobile apps, the more striking the parallels between the emergence of these two digital phenomena become.
At the dawn of the e-commerce age, as soon as it became obvious that the Internet was far more than just a fad, businesses around the world made a mad dash to get themselves a website. The priority was to BE online, an understanding of what to do once there came later. The development of mobile apps has the same feel. Some of the first brands to migrate to the new medium did so in a moderately clumsy fashion, bringing slow, truncated versions of their internet offering to the smartphone audience. But as time has gone by businesses are starting to up their games.
But just how far have they come? The launch late last month of fast food giant Burger King's own app seemed a perfect invitation to take a look at that particular market segment.
Of the major fast food brands only Burger King, McDonald's and Domino's Pizza had official iPhone apps readily available, which was a little bit surprising. If there were any others, they were doing an excellent job of hiding themselves. There were, unsurprisingly, a number of unofficial apps helping users locate the restaurants of these and other big names in this sector but for the sake of comparison we'll stick to official channels.
Conducting a review of these apps quickly revealed that the smartphone-using public are not an easy bunch to please. Boy oh boy do they like to moan. Based upon their App Store reviews had the apps not been free to download it's questionable how many people (this reviewer included) would have opted to do so. Delving a little deeper, however, it became clear that the rating system was only of limited value as a means to determine an app's usefulness. Amid the reasonable and rational ratings, there seemed to be a great deal of gross overreaction and hyperbole from people intoxicated by their own wit and wisdom.
But of the three examined the app from McDonald's received the highest rating, earning three out of a possible five stars. This was slightly curious because it was also by far the most rudimentary. The app offers a means to locate the nearest McDonald's restaurants to the user (using GPS positioning) and directions to get there (via GoogleMaps). You also are provided with the opening times of said restaurants. There's nothing wrong with simplicity, particularly when it comes to technology but really you'd expect more from this colossus of the fast food world.
The greatest number of complaints didn't derive from lack of features however, instead they were fairly equally divided between the app's tendency to crash when in 'search' mode, inaccurate directions and an out of date / incomplete restaurant list. Users seem to have been particularly irked to have been sent all around the houses just to walk past a McDonald's that wasn't on the app.
When The Appointment put the app through its paces however, none of these issues manifested themselves, the directions were spot on and there were no crashes. It was, thus, perfectly functional though rather uninspired - though clearly others have had a less positive experience. It would be of no surprise if a replacement app is in the pipeline.
The smartphone offering from Domino's Pizza could hardly have been more difficult, boasting more bells and whistles than a bells and whistle shop. As well as a store locator the app offers an attractive graphic interface ('the carousel') from which to choose your pizza, you can build your own pizza, and if you can't decide what you want you can play the 'Pizza slot machine' function. This is actually slightly addictive; you shake the iPhone and potential pizza varieties and toppings spin round like the reels of a fruit machine. Before you know it you either have a randomly generated plate of deliciousness or something a little odd (who would ever go for the onions, onions and onions combo it suggested as a topping?)
Once you've wasted 20 minutes fiddling with this, the app of course enables you to order your pizza and track its progress through to delivery. There's even a money off voucher game you can play too, with the chance to get money off your next order.
On the face of it this app is really quite something, so why the two-out-of-five-star rating? Clearly this is an app that has divided opinions - "great little app" and "A1!!!!" are countered by "Who wrote this rubbish?" and "Doesn't work at all". The aspect of the Domino's app that seems to have caused most annoyance has been a tendency to fail at the checkout stage - particularly annoying if you have spent some time putting together your order. Users have complained that the app either crashes or refuses to process the order due to an error with delivery time selection (i.e. they weren't allowed to select a time and couldn't proceed without doing so).
When it came to testing, this app had a less than flying start in as much as it was about five miles out in locating The Appointment's handset. As a result the store it selected for delivery wasn't the right one and had to be corrected. Once into the selection phase of the order, however, the app was a genuine pleasure to use being both intuitive and quirky as well as genuinely good looking.
The ordering process was also without incident, so why had so many people had so much trouble with it? The answer came when the process was repeated with the handset out of the office's WiFi router. Using the phone's regular 3G service the process was significantly slower and no amount of fun in pizza selection could make up for the fact that it took several attempts to get the order through.
Overall, this app promises much and delivers most of it but frustration from glitches and crashes could easily see folk heading for their laptops to order from a rival pizza company! That said, with problems ironed out this app would score a great deal higher.
Of the three apps under the spotlight, the App Store ratings for the Burger King application were the least useful. This was due to the overwhelming number people whose one-out-of-five-star rating had nothing whatsoever to do with its functionality. Instead these disgruntled souls were registering a protest vote having failed to win the Burger King-branded iPhone cover on offer to the first thousand people who downloaded the app. These slightly deluded souls seemed unable to believe they weren't among the 'lucky' thousand despite the massive footfall BK commands each year. In any event the two-and-a-half-star rating was somewhat meaningless.
In terms of complexity, the app falls somewhere between McDonald's and Domino's. It has an attractive visual interface and as you'd expect has a store finder / directions facility. A nifty little addition is the 'Promos' tool that lets you know what special deals are available at any given time. This little digital coupon is brought into the 21st century by the facility to share the promotions with friends through Facebook (as well as email). It's a simple enough idea but it actually provides an incentive to use the smartphone app that goes beyond novelty and geographical location. No doubt the notion is that tech-savvy customers of a certain demographic sharing these exclusive offers will create mini-campaigns of viral marketing. Something like that anyway.
You can also access the full BK menu as well as nutritional information about each particular product - so you know just how much your waistline is going to suffer! To Burger King's credit the app includes a feedback function for users which, once the folk complaining about their lack of a branded iPhone cover, will in theory enable the company to stay on top of any consistent glitches with the system.
When put through its paces the app worked pretty much as it described, it located the phone accurately and was able to advise how to proceed to the nearest burger emporium via a sensible route - both via WiFi connection and with regular 3G. The voucher feature is the real winner here though, as the changing offers provide a reason to check the app (particularly around lunchtime!)
Inevitably there have been some complaints about the BK app, with location of stores and accuracy of directions proving to be a bugbear once again. Potentially more damaging, however, are the issues stemming from restaurants not accepting the app offers. The social media angle Burger King is hoping to cultivate is very much a double-edged sword - people share bad news every bit as much as good news. It wouldn't take too long for credibility to be lost if word got around that the promo offers weren't being honoured. To be fair, however, these are sufficiently early days for such issues to be chalked up as teething problems.
Overall this felt like a well-considered app belonging to a maturing market that has more than novelty at its core. Difficult to say how many people who might want a Double-Whopper with Cheese and Bacon would also want to have the burger's precise nutritional value...but it is certainly a socially responsible feature! Nonetheless, it's a definite step in the right direction.
Whatever the features available, arguably the success or failure for all smartphone apps lies in the speed in which 3G networks can render them. Convenience lies at the heart of the smartphone phenomenon and slow, inaccurate or inoperative apps will quickly be deleted. For now the ability to make the most of the networks' present capacity is the crucial ingredient that will set the best apps apart. Everyone else will just have to wait for advances in technology to facillitate their demands.