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Dining ratings: trust or trouble?

Updated: 2024-02-21 07:06 ( CHINA DAILY )
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                           Zhao Yige and Tan Binbin. China Daily

Eat? Or not?

While ratings can sometimes confuse diners, they also raise concerns for restaurant owners.

Zhao Yige, 27, is a novice manager running a Chongqing hot pot restaurant in Beijing. Since its soft opening in early January, the store has received about 10 reviews on Dianping, all positive with at least 4 points. However, the overall score stands at 3.8 points, which Zhao finds disappointing.

She explained that review sites use complicated formulas for generating scores, which are not solely based on customer ratings. In this digital age, even a reduction of 0.1 points in rating can lead to reduced exposure, resulting in a drop in customers and revenue.

Bothered by the low score, Zhao plans to make changes. Once her restaurant officially opens after Spring Festival, she will purchase a membership with the review sites, which will allow her to access more features for business owners, such as uploading home page pictures and videos, as well as managing customer messages more effectively.

"I can tell that the review sites want restaurants to encourage customers to leave comments and make payments through the platform, both of which would boost scores," Zhao said.

According to her, highly-rated places also get certain privileges. For instance, only those with 4.5 points or above can sell group coupons on the platform.

"I feel caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, I know food quality is crucial, and customers don't want to be unduly influenced. On the other hand, ratings do matter, so despite my hesitation, I've instructed our staff to remind customers to rate us when appropriate," she said.

Zhao also has her eye on young people, who are active on social media and could become voluntary promoters for her store if guided properly. She has decorated her restaurant with a youthful aesthetic, using trendy colors and slang slogans. She also plans to set up a dessert stall in the hall and conduct livestreams on platforms like Douyin and Xiaohongshu.

Upon hearing about the trend of lower-rated restaurants getting more popular, Zhao welcomes it. "This shows that customers are becoming more discerning and hold more diverse standards," she said. "I hope this trend continues, pushing more shop owners to focus on what's truly important for a restaurant — taste and service."

A takeout tale

Apart from dining in restaurants, takeout is another common choice for daily meals, especially among young people. However, Tan Binbin from Chongqing noted that the trend of choosing moderately-rated eateries hasn't extended to the field of takeout.

Tan, formerly a manager of a leading takeout app in China, is now working as an independent consultant for takeout restaurants. He explained that the logic and algorithm of ratings differ between review sites and takeout platforms. For example, the rating system for food delivery platforms like Meituan and Eleme is much simpler — it uses a dynamically changing model that calculates the average points received over the past 30 days.

"This means the scores are mainly decided by customers rather than complicated rules set by platforms. It also allows restaurant owners to quickly respond to low ratings and improve within a couple of days. Because of this, ratings on takeout apps are usually higher than those on review sites," Tan explained.

"For many takeout customers, 4 points is usually the lowest acceptable score. They think a rating lower than that indicates serious problems with the restaurant," he added.

According to Tan, customers' concerns about takeouts are even greater than those about regular restaurants. For example, hygiene is a primary worry, especially for places that offer only takeout with no dine-in service. These stores often operate in back streets or alleys, giving off an unclean impression. Heavy use of instant cooking packages is another issue.

Tan pointed out that rice bowls of braised pork, fish-flavored pork slices, and steamed pork with preserved vegetables are popular takeout dishes as common categories of precooked food.

Although the "low-rated restaurant trend" doesn't apply to takeouts, he said that he understands people's rebellious thoughts about the high ratings on platforms.

"We live in a world surrounded by ratings. We check scores and reviews not only when choosing a restaurant or ordering takeout, but also before online shopping and watching films," Tan said. "Ratings are supposed to be helpful. They just need to be fairer and more representative."

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