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Satisfying Gen Z's appetite for food in near-real time


When it comes to meeting Gen Z’s food cravings, fast delivery isn’t a “nice to have.” It’s an absolute must.

In 1900, a columnist from The Boston Globe tried to envision what his city might look like in the year 2000. Boston, according to Thomas F. Anderson, would be a city where “airships” would breeze their way across the skyline as a form of mass transit. “Moving sidewalks” would let Bostonians reach their destinations right on time. Baseball games would actually get played “at night.

… Lol.

But it gets better. In fact, it sometimes gets eerily prescient. While Anderson’s prediction that “the telephone will have become a relic of the past” doesn’t quite ring true (ask your mobile phone provider for further details), his prediction that “by means of wireless telegraphy the citizen may communicate with any city or town in the land” does sound like a premonition of the internet age. Moreover, his prediction that a “pneumatic tube service” would eventually let people receive “ready-made lunches… at the touch of a button” does kind of sound like a food-delivery app.

Sure, we’re not all airshipping or hoverboarding to work quite yet, but give Mr. Anderson some credit. His predictions about the rise of instant delivery – particularly the delivery of restaurant food – are fast becoming our reality. The market for on-demand food delivery has the potential for being worth $210 billion, with 60 percent of that opportunity being simply for pizza. A new study from Technomic further reveals how 49 percent of consumers “aged 18 to 34” are ordering food online more often than ever.

Stats like these dovetail nicely with what we already know about Gen Z’s ravenous prioritization of internet delivery. The results of a recent UNiDAYS study of 1,800 US students speak for themselves: 78 percent of American students responded that they spend a majority of their money on food (apart from tuition and rent). Another report from Piper Jaffray shows that today’s Gen Z teens are spending 20 percent more of their dollars on food options than their millennial peers did back in 2003.
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To put it plainly: Gen Zers expect near-real time service when it comes to satisfying their real-time hunger pains. Restaurant owners and delivery platforms unwilling to meet this new generation’s demand for immediacy need to step up their game – or step out of the way.

The data that’s available shows a portrait of a generation that isn’t willing to sit patiently for the kitchen stove to reach a boil. Recent findings by Marchex show that 60 percent of 18-to-24 year olds will hang up a phone immediately if a business doesn’t respond. And if that doesn’t convince you of the need for speed, 39 percent of today’s Gen Zers are clamoring for one-hour delivery by drone, according to at least one marketing study by RR Donnelley. “Let that sink in”, as they like to say these days.

In all fairness, plenty of individual brands and food delivery platforms seem to be answering the call for faster food service with appropriate, five-alarm vigor. YUM!, the multinational food conglomerate that owns the Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut quick-service food franchises, recently announced a partnership with GrubHub that would “test and roll out online ordering for pickup and delivery to “thousands” of participating U.S. restaurants in current GrubHub markets,” according to QSR. Chances are this is only the beginning. With the upsurge of food delivery platforms like HelloFresh and Seamless (to name just a few others than GrubHub), there may well come a time when nearly every restaurant chain nationwide – or even worldwide – is available “at the touch of a button,” to use Mr. Anderson’s original phrase from 1900.

To meet these needs, companies will need to invest in user-friendly, bugless delivery apps, accurate systems that can track orders in near-real time and machine-learning systems that learn how to cater to individual customers’ tastes in food in ways that are ever-more accurate and singular.

Perhaps most obviously (and importantly), there will be a need for companies to be willing to invest in sizable fleets of delivery drivers. Many already are. In the same QSR article quoted above, Pizza Hut has already added 14,000 new drivers to its payroll in 2017 alone. Others will need to follow  – or be left to fend for themselves in a cloud of delivery-car (or bike) dust.

Of course “speedy delivery” isn’t the only factor restaurants need to consider when engaging Gen Z. Dig a little deeper into the research and you’ll uncover some interesting tidbits: While Gen Zers are more price-conscious than millennials, they’re also mindful about healthy eating choices. As reported by Nielsen, Gen Zers are likely the most health-conscious food consumers in American history. Indeed, as it turns out, Gen Zers are fueling a market for tofu, seitan and other types of “fake meat”  – a market expected to climb to $5.2 billion by 2020, according to Business Insider. To meet this imperative for healthy, delivery platforms would do well to offer transparency into the calories and ingredients that go into making their food, especially when it relates to college students and the fact that almost half of them don’t have meal plans. Transparency is as valuable a commodity as it ever has been – if not more so. 

So what does this all mean? Not only are baseball games played at night… but near-instant delivery of food is becoming a reality. If he were living today in Silicon Valley, Mr. Anderson might well forgo his occupation as a journalist, and become an investor in burgeoning internet delivery platforms such as Grubhub, HelloFresh or Seamless, to name just a few. Especially given the fact that Gen Z alone represents $143 billion in spending power.

Consumer expectations will only accelerate as the development of faster delivery systems continues to evolve. (Think of those 39 percent of Gen Zers looking to the skies for their one-hour drone delivery service.)

Maybe there once was a time in ancient Rome when emperors were willing to wait patiently for their servants to return from the mountains with fresh snow to make their gelato. But those days are long gone. Today’s college kids don’t have time for that sh*t. Anyone who expects Generation Z – with its average online attention span of eight seconds – to wait for an hour while their gelato melts... might as well be sweating it out in ancient Rome.

John Wheeler
John Wheeler
Contributor, Gen Z Insights

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