There’s a discount culture here in the UAE that is proving to be extremely damaging for the restaurants and cafés that pepper every corner of the country.
It all started with The Entertainer back in 2001. Paper-based discount vouchers became almost a new currency for savvy diners and shoppers, always hunting through the heavyweight book for a percentage off their bill. People regularly exchanged vouchers with each other, and The Entertainer paved the way for people to start seeing discounts as a way of life.
Fast forward almost a decade and now there’s Groupon, HalaKIWI, Zomato Gold, Smiles, Discounter, Cobone and LunchOn, to name a few. Discount culture is rife, and we live in an age when paying full price for something feels like you’ve missed out.
Throw in top ‘aggregators’ like Deliveroo, Uber, Talabat and Zomato – which reward businesses which heavily discount with increased consumer visibility – and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed as a small business.
Caught in a spider’s web of needing the business – especially in the current pandemic – and faced with crippling commission charges, it’s no surprise that restaurateurs, seeing the strain on their P&L accounts, are beginning to fight back.
In India, as an example, there’s a movement called “#logout” – encouraging restaurateurs to drop aggregators. Restaurants are becoming increasingly commoditised, with less focus on serving delicious food made with love, and more on serving people faster and cheaper than the competition.
As a restauranteur and branding expert – my advice is stay well away from the web. Stop pandering to the heavy discounting aggregator apps and sites. One of the biggest dangers is handing over too much value – in terms of brand – to the aggregators, coupled with losing any direct relationship with consumers. Fight back, rekindle the direct relationships, and re-learn the reasons why you started a food business in the first place.
What was initially promoted as a partnership between food aggregators keen to help small restaurants take a technological leap into online ordering is now taking a heavy toll on the sector. It’s anything but a partnership. Restaurants need to disconnect to reconnect. Disconnect from the tech giants taking over their businesses, and reconnect with real customers.
Here’s the thing. We all need to re-discover the genuine value of the food in our lives. We can share the story of food, embrace the culture and history of a dish, and take a moment to respect the years of training, craft, innovation and love that a chef puts into your plate.
Food became the new rock and roll some years ago. Spend more than a few moments on any social media platform and you’ll be bombarded by images of baking, cooking, plating, dishes, recipes and yes, what your neighbour had for breakfast. (Avocado on toast, probably). We should embrace this culture, and help people celebrate the abundance we have on our plates.
But remember fakes never last, Share the story behind the restaurant, divulge the beautiful miniscule details probably only you know, and educate your customers about the ingredients, regional origins, quality and processes involved, in a manner that’s natural and true.
In time, your customers will see, hear and taste why your tagine or moussaka is worth AED39 and they’ll keep coming back for more. Customers become friends; you see them so often. Loyalty builds trust on both sides, and with loyalty, word of mouth becomes better than any discount to pull in a one-off customer.
As a restauranteur, you’ll start to enjoy a fabulously loyal customer base, who you’ll sometimes love to reward with freebies and discounts. Real, loyal customers aren’t driven by discounts. A discount shouldn’t feel like a right, or that you’ve ‘beaten the system.’
The reality is, in these tough times of ongoing uncertainty, we probably won’t succeed in changing the local desire for crazy deals. Certainly not overnight. But what we can change is people’s appreciation of what we offer – provided it’s a genuine offering, of course.
At Cafe Isan, we wouldn’t have survived these last five years without our wonderful, loyal customers by our side. We just don’t need a loyalty app, and with the right approach, neither do you.