Online food ordering has finally reached the age of maturity. Leading the way is Seamless, which is projected to bring in over $100 million in revenues while processing over $1 billion in online restaurant orders. Seamless has almost double the revenue of Grubhub ($60 million), the only other major player in the market. Although online food ordering was much slower to catch on than the purchase of airplane tickets and books through the Internet, it has made up a lot of ground in urban areas over the last 2-3 years. In the next few years, we may see the conventional delivery phone call vanish from major urban areas in the USA.
The late night or lunchtime call for delivery has already been on the decline, and companies, most notably Seamless (formerly SeamlessWeb), are set on making the phone largely an artifact of the past. This has been helped along as more and more reservations are made over Opentable, Urbanspoon and the like. They are far beyond their competitors in branding, and their site is relatively customer friendly, although it is not without annoying bugs that can make it frustrating for customers. Grubhub, the only company with comparable reach, lags behind in these areas. One example is that Grubhub still frustrates customers by including restaurants that don’t use Grubhub’s online ordering on their website.
Corporate to Personal
Seamless is old by Internet standards, having started in 1999. What they offered was pretty novel at that point. Through the Internet, Seamless provided technology so that customers could order online using a credit card. Of course, restaurants still do the actual delivery, but with the new online ordering technology, they need to dedicate less personnel to phone orders. Also an online ordering system makes it more difficult to mess up an order. When the company began in New York City, it focused on providing food ordering services for companies. They built up a large profile of corporate accounts from some of the biggest players in NYC, from investment banks to elite law firms. Eventually, in 2005, Seamless became available for personal use. To this day, a substantial percentage of their revenue comes from business accounts. By most measures, for such a big operation (Seamless has more than 12,000 restaurants, and have a stranglehold on NYC), the company hasn’t been as successful in expanding into smaller markets the same way OpenTable has been. For example, Seamless is not in San Diego, nor has it achieved the indisputable dominance in other big cities. Why is that? In my opinion, it has to do with Seamless’ high fees (somewhere between 12% and 18%), which only makes sense if Seamless has a large and loyal following in that city already.
Some restaurant owners accuse that Seamless charges a marketing fee. This made sense in the very beginning when Seamless had, more or less, cornered the market in major corporate accounts in Manhattan. 50 % of orders through Seamless were from corporate accounts only 2 years ago. But the rest of the USA doesn’t operate like Manhattan so perhaps this rate is lower. In Manhattan, Seamless has caused problems similar to Opentable although not on the same scale. Essentially, once the software and hardware are in place, Seamless does nothing but take their share, a share which hovers around a restaurant’s margin for deliveries.
Seamless keeps their contract terms behind close doors (or non-disclosure agreements), and the rates vary by restaurant. What rate goes to what restaurant is not clear. This incredible lack of transparency shortchange restaurants as they cannot explore their options fully. I also hinders an efficient marketplace. It gives restaurant owners little room to compare not only Seamless to its direct competitors but also to online ordering systems that functions exclusively on a restaurant’s website. Restaurants cede also incredible freedom to Seamless to use their proprietary brand content.
The future will probably move from online ordering to mobile ordering and both Seamless and Grubhub have mobile apps. These aggressive expansions go with their general strategy: to control as many of the key online restaurant resources as possible, such as menu sites. Mobile ordering however presents the biggest threat to restaurants who opt out of Seamless and Grubhub.
Mobile ordering takes up 40% of traffic on a good day and this area is still growing. The mobile apps really cement Seamless/Grubhubs position as there are stand-alone ordering programs. that restaurants can hook up to their websites, but they will be at a severe disadvantage when it comes to mobile ordering. Apps always beat websites when it comes to using a mobile phone.
With the rise of mobile comes an increasing allegiance of customers to ordering services like Seamless and Grubhub, which weakens a restaurant’s bargaining position. Few customers will download an app of an independent restaurant, so restaurants who go it alone cannot enter the mobile ordering marketing. Some restaurants seem to have given up entirely, surrendering their online marketing to Seamless by settling for Seamless’ cookie cutter websites. Restaurants should be very concerned about branding even if still having to work with Seamless. Unlike Opentable, customers who order through Seamless must leave the restaurant’s website. At the end of the day, the interests of individual restaurants is secondary to the customers as Seamless knows that with a loyal customer pool restaurants are forced to pay a high share to be listed.
It is definitely difficult for restaurants to navigate new technologies and the gatekeepers to those technologies. For restaurants that rely on orders, Seamless is convenient and presents increased visibility but not without significant expense.