China to potentially become world hub for automated foodservice post COVID-19, says GlobalData

COVID-19 has disrupted the global foodservice industry like no other crisis, with businesses small and large scrambling to pull together their resources and adapt their business model to suit to a new, largely remote customer base. In the short-term, this has led to largely digital strategies in order to maintain the clients’ engagement. However, it is difficult to predict the situation once the restaurants reopen. The answer may be found in increased automated services, says GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company.

As per GlobalData’s COVID-19 tracker consumer survey, 80% of Chinese consumers are influenced by how digitally advanced a service is, much higher than the global response (58%). This indicates a large and susceptible market to new digital innovations that foodservice can leverage when outlets are operational again. Increased reliance on automated services may help operators reduce future costs, particularly if they are compelled to shut up shop again, as well as provide more convenience for customers seeking innovative and accessible dining occasions.

Carmen Bryan, Consumer Analyst at GlobalData, commented: “Post COVID-19, the industry may find itself with fewer outlets and severely understaffed. Whilst employee positions will likely be filled quickly, time and resources will need to be set aside for the mass recruitment and training required. All of this will put additional pressures on operators who themselves will still be recovering from the fallout. Crisis tends to bring changes, and this may be in the form of more robotic-led outlets.”

However, the concept of robotic outlets remains niche. GlobalData’s 2018 Q4 consumer survey reports that only a third of (31%) consumers worldwide found the concept of being served by robotic waiters appealing, with this being lowest in Western regions. It clearly suggests that such technologies still have a long way to go before they are accepted as a viable alternative to full service dining, rather than a gimmicky phase that appeals only to family orientated occasions.

Bryan continues: ‘‘However, the same survey in China illustrates that nearly double (61%) of Chinese consumers found such concepts appealing. The country has already birthed a number of high-concept restaurants such as Alibaba’s Robot.He, based in Shanghai, which combines apps, robotic table-service, and a personal touch from hosts who greet and seat patrons into a futuristic and accessible package. Hey Zeus, a fully self-serving 100% organic café and takeaway based in Australia, demonstrates how such technologies may be utilized not only as novel enhancements to one’s social media thread, but also as an effective method of streamlining efficiency, reducing operational costs and upping the convenience element for a Western audience.’’

Consumers wary of hand to hand contact following COVID-19 may prefer such advancements when dining out. GlobalData outlines this trend as a sterilized society, essentially referring to an escalating obsession with hygiene, cleanliness and immunity among health-attentive consumers globally. Concerns regarding how food products are handled and served will likely be sustained for some time following COVID-19, and as such, operators should incorporate automated and contactless technologies into their strategies.

Bryan concludes: “As the epicenter where the disease broke out from, and one of the first countries to partially lift quarantining and resume some daily operations, China will prove a key learning point in terms of consumer confidence and behavior. Foodservice operators should keep a close eye on China in order to gauge what comes next, and how best they can prepare.”

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