business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

In the Bible and in the 1989 classic Field of Dreams, both Noah and our film hero are told “if you build it” they (the animals) or he (baseball’s Shoeless Joe Jackson) will come.

Fast forward to 2019 and two business throwbacks – the shopping mall and TGI Fridays restaurants – are hoping a decidedly current mobile app will bring customers back to the brick-and-mortar stores and the red-and-white striped awning.

Their premise: If you throw in an Uber voucher, they will come.

The ride-share giant recently announced its Uber Vouchers program allowing businesses to “show your customers you care” with free or discounted rides. Participating companies include TGI Fridays, Westfield shopping centers, Live Nation, the Golden State Warriors, MGM Resorts and Sprint.

Here’s how it works: The business designs a custom campaign made available to select customers organizing perks, loyalty rewards or incentive programs through Uber. When the passenger orders an Uber, the applicable Voucher free fare or discount will come up as a payment option.

The stated goal: a “differentiated experience” and “deeper connections” with the customer.

I’d call that a pretty lofty goal in exchange for a free ride in the back of a 2009 Hyundai Sonata.

Let’s begin with Westfield’s promise to “surprise and delight our customers with a complimentary ride with Uber” to increase foot traffic – especially during key events and seasonal promotions. That may be a draw at Westfield’s upscale Century City Mall in prime L.A. Uber territory, which even has a designated Uber lounge, but I don’t see it luring folks to the dated (circa 1964) shopping center near me in suburban Connecticut. (Reminds me of the old joke - admission is free, but you have toi pay to get out. Uber might be better positioned as a way to escape the Stamford Town Center, not get there.)

Which brings us to the global fast-casual chain TGI Fridays, founded in 1965 by 28-year-old Alan Stillman so he could “meet Pan Am stewardesses” and create a singles’ scene in New York City. In the U.S., TGI Fridays was an early adopter of Uber Eats delivery service ferrying take-out to homes and apartments. The Vouchers program is designed to get patrons back in to the actual restaurant, let them relax, enjoy and get a safe ride home.

In theory, I am a huge fan of any effort to ensure safe travels after a night out. But the question is whether an Uber voucher is enough to overcome TGI Fridays’ image - at least to me - as a completely inauthentic experience that seems to be trying to replicate an environment mired in a decades-old vision.

Let’s be clear. TGI Fridays is a company being sued for $5 million because the bags of potato skins that it sells inn supermarkets don’t actually contain any potato skins - just, apparently, a mixture of “potato flakes” or “potato starch.” Which tells you everything you need to know about TGIF’s dedication to authenticity. It’s Loaded Potato Skins appetizer, sold in its restaurants, weighs in at 1,510 calories … which doesn’t strike me as a particularly modern approach to food.

I think an updated menu with healthy offerings might be more important than an Uber voucher. Those kinds of value-added offerings are more attractive if the place where it takes you actually has value.

For MGM Resorts, for example, I can see the value of Uber Vouchers to transport patrons between its different properties, restaurants and shows in Las Vegas.

There’s merit in the Golden State Warriors’ plan to incorporate Uber Vouchers in ticket packages to get fans to and from a designated Uber pickup spot at Oracle Arena in Oakland. Especially since the Warriors continue to be uber-hot in the NBA playoffs.

And there is a lot of marketing synergy in Uber’s deal with the Australian car servicing comparison site Autoguru, which helps answer the age-old question that spans the continents: how do I get where I need to go after I take my car in for repair?

I think these kinds of offerings can be supremely effective when they address consumer pain points. But at TGIF, I think they ought to spend more time focusing on the food and establishing value there, and worry a little less about value-added propositions.

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