With the economy rebounding, are restaurants driving more new foot traffic and acquiring new customers? According to a new study of 7,000 consumers by Market Force Information, despite the recovery, fewer consumers are trying out casual-dining restaurants compared to two years ago. This may be a result of fewer new choices to try in the category, as just 11 percent of consumers reported trying a new casual-dining chain in the past 90 days, whereas in 2011, 27 percent had tried a new casual-dining brand in the previous 30 days. Those consumers experimenting with new restaurants are primarily tempting their taste buds at chains serving continental fare, steaks, and seafood – three restaurant categories showing healthy sales growth. Restaurants specializing in continental cuisine attracted the most new patrons by a wide margin, with 18 percent of consumers indicating that they’d tried one in the past 90 days. Steakhouses ranked second with 11 percent, seafood restaurants were third with 8 percent, breakfast chains ranked fourth with 7 percent and pizza eateries rounded out the top five with 6 percent.
Brands were closely clustered in attracting new customers. Out of the restaurant chains studied, Pizza Hut did the best job of attracting new visitors, just edging out Golden Corral, which ranked second, followed by Joe’s Crab Shack, Red Lobster, and Olive Garden. The top 10 casual-dining restaurant chains were separated by less than one percentage point, calling attention to the tight race among a variety of restaurant brands to capture new customers. Market Force’s study also suggests that those closest to us tend to wield the greatest influence on our buying decisions. Of the respondents who had tried a new casual-dining restaurant, nearly 40 percent were spurred by the recommendation of a friend or family member. One-quarter stopped in after seeing the restaurant when driving or walking by, while 17 percent cited a specific promotion or coupon and 9 percent were led in by a TV or radio ad. Consumers were also asked to rate their customer experience eating at a new restaurant and, while 48 percent said they were delighted, the remainder said it was either just OK or bad. This could point to a missed opportunity for restaurant operators who may not see return visits from 52 percent of their first-time diners. Dollars spent on marketing are feasibly wasted and the cost of customer recovery goes up.
“There’s so much competition out there and it’s only getting more difficult for restaurant operators to attract new customers. For discerning diners, it’s a case of one strike and you’re out, so being adequate is no longer good enough,” says Janet Eden-Harris, chief marketing officer for Market Force. “We’ve found that delighted customers are nine times more likely to recommend a restaurant than those who had just an OK experience. This tells us that chains that truly wow their customers on their first visit can establish brand advocates who are almost guaranteed to recommend the restaurant to friends and family.”
For those who reported dissatisfaction, the most common reasons given were that the price was too high for the quality of food, the food quality was poor, and the food was too unhealthy. Several other areas of operational excellence were also cited, including slow order times, unappealing atmosphere, and sub-standard service. Market Force’s study found that social media continues to play a major role as a means for consumers to get information on restaurants overall. Forty-one percent said they read an online review, blog post, or tweet about a restaurant before dining there. What’s more, 18 percent fed back into the social system by posting an online review, blog, or tweet about restaurant. In the casual-dining segment specifically, relatively few (less than 8 percent) reported posting a comment on the restaurant’s Facebook page after trying it for the first time. However, brands are potentially missing a sizeable opportunity in nurturing those relationships, as only about half of those who posted to the restaurant’s Facebook page heard back from them.
The survey was conducted in March 2013 across the United States. The pool of more than 7,000 respondents reflected a broad spectrum of income levels, with 60 percent reporting household incomes of more than $50,000 a year. Respondents’ ages ranged from 18 to over 65. Approximately 75 percent were women and 25 percent were men, and nearly half have children at home.