Walking into a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store can create sensory overload. Once you get past the crafted, hardwood slat rocking chairs on the restaurant’s spacious porch, you enter the restaurant and smell the aroma of homestyle food cooking as you maneuver through the diverse retail area before reaching the greeter’s station to book a table.

Yes, a lot is going on before you even sit down to dine in front of the crackling stone fireplace or take in a game of checkers or a peg game on authentic cracker barrels. It’s an inviting place to dine or shop.

But as much as Cracker Barrel extended its hospitality, the nationwide restaurant chain realized that, while it had solved most guest problems with its current online lineup, it was not truly creating a positive customer experience. During a Sitecore Symposium 2021 featured breakout session titled “Bringing the care and hospitality of an old country store to wherever life finds you”, the company outlined the success it’s been seeing following a digital transformation and consolidation with the help of Sitecore.

Cracker Barrel guests could choose from several digital points of entry, which yielded separate websites for brand and locations information, catering, retail, and two mobile apps. This cluster of choices would result in fragmented customer experiences.

“(We) felt like that did not exemplify our brand of hospitality,” said Julie Perry, Cracker Barrel’s VP of Marketing Communications. “And while we had solved the problems that the guests had related to visiting our brand, we hadn’t given that level of hospitality and care that we’ve become known for.”

“It didn’t look like us,” said Bryan Hooper, Cracker Barrel’s VP of Digital Experience.

This led Cracker Barrel to create a Digital Store and bring together its restaurant and retail into a single guest experience within and beyond the four walls of its 664 physical locations. The goal was to offer a unified feel for web, mobile web, and mobile applications for its 230 million annual guests.

The road to digital transformation

Founded in 1969 in Lebanon, Tenn., Cracker Barrel bills itself as a unique restaurant and retail experience reflecting a country heritage. As Cracker Barrel puts it, the “name comes from the days when folks would gather around a cracker barrel on the front porch of the local country store and tell stories.”

Cracker Barrel’s stores were designed to be rustic. But Perry and Hooper also knew the brand’s digital experience didn’t have to be. As soon as they got the backing, Perry and Hooper started the digital transformation with a message to Cracker Barrel staff: “We wanted to impress upon our colleagues that digital is not just about technology; it’s a new way for us to bring hospitality to our guests,” Perry said.

Cracker Barrel started this digital journey in 2019. It launched a Digital Store for dining and catering in October 2020 and for retail in January 2021. The dining part of Cracker Barrel produced 80% of the company’s revenue with the retail assortment of holiday-themed curios, clothing, media, candles, candies, dry goods, and toys accounting for the rest.

“The idea was to take a very custom user interface and make it very homey and nostalgic — just like the Cracker Barrel brand — and infuse all those point solutions that previously had been separate into one unifying experience for our guests,” Perry said.

Cracker Barrel turned to Sitecore for this conversion, selecting Sitecore Experience Commerce® on Sitecore Managed Cloud for a commerce-enabled experience with personalization capabilities. The restaurant also used headless CMS and commerce to provide shared functionality in its web, mobile web, and app experiences. It also opted for Sitecore Managed Cloud to run and operate environments to reduce the need for infrastructure specialists on its digital team.

The transformation allowed guests to find their nearest restaurant, order take-out food, cater an event, and shop retail items using a single cart, account, and payment for in-store pickup, curbside, or delivery. On the mobile app, customers can customize their orders (meat choices, egg choices, or side choices with special instructions). Customers also can pre-order holiday heat-and-serve meals and pair food and retail purchases. While in the physical store, guests can join a waitlist and pay their in-store dining bill, providing them more time to peruse the vast selection of retail choices.

Creating a digital vision

Cracker Barrel laid the foundation for this transformation in a calculated way. The restaurant’s marketing and technology departments started with a jointly created digital vision and included all stakeholders in the early planning. With a request for proposal (RFP), the team started hiring its digital transformation staff, selected PricewaterhouseCoopers as a partner in September 2019, then began design and construction of the digital store.

Once launched, Cracker Barrel leveraged a phased pilot approach to move traffic onto the new experience for feedback and to make corrections and adjustments. It also recommended that analytics be fully in place as quickly as possible to measure success and find usage issues.

Cracker Barrel’s results

Since the Digital Store’s launch in October 2020, Cracker Barrel has witnessed increased engagement and financial results, when compared with fragmented experiences. Compared with a pre-pandemic benchmark, online sessions have increased 25.5% with a 36.2% growth in new web visitors and a 14.3% hike in return visitors. Digital purchases also have grown 100.3% with a 59.5% gain in customer conversion rate and an 8.2% increase in average order value.

Overall, the transformation has proved to be a financial success: Digital Store has driven a 116.8% improvement in online revenue, which earned Cracker Barrel Sitecore’s 2021 Ultimate Experience Award for the Americas region.

What’s next? Cracker Barrel plans to build on this transformation by tapping into opportunities for personalization, leveraging additional marketing automation and physical touchpoints to create guest journeys.

“Our (human) servers at our locations know how you want your coffee and your eggs,” Perry said. “We believe that a digital experience should be able to do the same. So, we are excited to unlock all the possibilities for personalization with our website through the Sitecore experience.”

Michael Masini is the Senior Director of Content Marketing, Corporate Events & Social Media at Sitecore. Connect with him on LinkedIn