Saturday, November 21, 2009

Restaurant reservations

An interesting paper by Alexei Alexandrov and Martin A. Lariviere asks Are Reservations Recommended?
From the abstract:

"We examine the role of reservations in capacity-constrained services with a focus on restaurants. Although customers value reservations, restaurants typically neither charge for them nor impose penalties for failing to honor them. However, reservations impose costs on firms offering them. We highlight ways in which reservations can increase a firm’s sales by altering customer behavior. First, when demand is uncertain, reservations induce more customers to patronize the restaurant on slow nights. The firm must then trade off higher sales in a soft market with sales lost to no shows on busy nights. Competition makes reservations more attractive as long as enough customers will consider dining at either restaurant. When there are many firms in the market, it is rarely an equilibrium for none to offer reservations. Second, we show that reservations can increase sales by shifting demand from a popular peak period to a less desirable off-peak time. This is accomplished by informing diners when all peak reservations have been given out. "

And from the Introduction:

"Restaurant reservations are a curious phenomenon. Customers value them, but restaurants give them away. Indeed, firms such as Weekend Epicure have stepped in to profit from the resulting arbitrage opportunity. These “scalpers” reserve tables at popular spots under fictitious names that they share with the first paying party. (Fees are on the order of $35 to $40.) What makes offering reservations even more remarkable is that they are costly to provide. Fischer (2005) identifies three costs to offering reservations. These include additional staff needed to take reservations and added complexity from having to balance the needs of walk-in customers with commitments made to reservation holders. The final consideration is no shows.
Customers can generally fail to keep reservations without penalty, but restaurants suffer if they hold capacity for customers that never come. No shows represent a real problem. Bertsimas and Shioda (2003) report a no-show rate of 3% to 15% for the restaurant they studied. More generally, rates of 20% are not unusual (Webb Pressler, 2003) and special occasions such as New Year’s Eve can push rates to 40% (Martin, 2001).
Why then should restaurants offer reservations? One reason is the operational benefits they provide. Reservations regulate the flow of work. By staggering seatings, a restaurateur can assure that waiters are not overwhelmed by a rush of customers followed by the bartender and kitchen being swamped with orders. Reservations thus allow fast service without excessive capacity (Fischer, 2005). Reservations would then be appealing when either customers are delay sensitive or the firm’s costs increase with arrival variability. Further, reservations may allow a restaurant to estimate demand and improve staffing and sourcing decision."

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