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Consumer insights: Chilling's out

Studies show Americans have less leisure time, but what's that mean for a restaurateur? The following article will do its best to omit longer-syllable words so it can be read in one-third less time.

It's only fitting. After all, for several years now, all we've been hearing is how Americans have less leisure time than ever before. We're told that we (which means, of course, your customers, too) are working longer, sleeping less, and commuting more—all to the detriment of traditional mealtimes. It may be why the term "drive-thru" appears in the latest edition of the American Heritage dictionary and why, if you Google the term "time starved," you'll find 28,400 entries. And just in case you haven't noticed, some of the restaurant industry's biggest trends in recent years— from home-meal replacement to curbside delivery to online ordering— have been based on the notion that Americans have no time any more—no time to cook, to dine leisurely, and almost no time to eat at all.

It's easy enough to believe that our leisure time is shrinking, but the trend has so far escaped some probing questions. Who, exactly, are these time-starved people? Is everybody really running themselves into the ground with work and family obligations, leaving only minutes a day for mealtimes? Which demographic groups have more time, and who has less?

And, perhaps most important of all, is the crunch helping or hurting restaurants? The industry became America's kitchen when harried families found themselves with too little time to cook at home. But has it gone so far that they have no time to visit a restaurant, or even to eat a traditional meal at all? Obviously the answers are crucial for anyone in the business of trying to feed the country.

We know through well-established research that many Americans feel the time crunch, and that it's affected their choice in restaurants for some time. A 2002 RoperASW poll, for example, found that 68% of Americans said they ate at fast-food restaurants in order to save time. In the same survey, convenience consistently outranked health considerations and even taste as the most important factor Americans use in deciding where and how to eat.

And indeed, there's ample evidence that as Americans grow busier, traditional leisure time—which many equate with meal time—is the first thing to suffer. A Penn State University study found that the number of people who say they have less free time than they did five years ago is double the number who say they have more.

According to the University of Maryland's Use of Time Project, back in 1965 some 48% of Americans complained they never had free time. When the study was conducted again in 1995, that number was 61%. According to various studies, Americans now read less, have fewer dinner parties, and even stop at fewer stop signs than ever before.

Just who are these ravages peoples?

Families, for one. According to demographic researcher Valdas Anelauskas, author of Discovering America As It Is, the number of hours spent working has increased for families quicker than it has for individuals because real hourly wages have been falling since 1973, and presumably families feel the loss of buying power more acutely. According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, two out of five families reported having to send an additional family member into the paid labor force. The number of family members holding two or more jobs has increased from 4.7 million in 1979 to eight million in 1999.

Young adults, in general, are another group. Americans between the ages of 25-34 report having less leisure time, either because they're starting families or are trying to build careers. According to the Use of Time Project, higher levels of education and income directly affect hours committed to work, and complicate the process of finding leisure time.

Mothers. Even though the number of hours spent working is statistically higher for men than women—estimated at 49 hours per week, versus 42, according to the Families and Work Institute—the responsibilities of raising children and maintaining a household still appear to burden women disproportionately. According to a study by LeisureTRAK, mothers with children under 18 reported having only 3.5 hours of leisure time a day, which is 1 hour and 20 minutes less than women with no children. Several studies have shown that women do two-thirds of housework and assume four-fifths of childcare.

Suburbanites, too, seem to feel the time crunch more, even though the pace of life in cities is assumed to be faster. A recent study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation revealed that residents of newer "suburban sprawl" communities enjoyed fewer leisure activities such as walking than those residing in more compact communities. The necessity of getting into a car to fulfill most needs, social and economic, likely contributes to the perception of a more hectic lifestyle.

Given results like these, it's no wonder that restaurants in suburban areas or ones catering specifically to the executive-lunch or the family-takeout-dinner business are doing the right thing by investing in those carryout containers. But just because these groups—which account for millions of people—are on the go more than ever doesn't mean that all Americans are time-starved.

The demographic group known as 'tweens' (youngsters aged 8-14) have not only emerged as consumers in their own right, they're considered leisure practitioners. According to researchers at Packaged Facts, 'tweens' are huge consumers of leisure-time products like movies, sporting goods, and video games, and more than half immerse themselves in more than one leisure activity at the same time—such as listening to music, reading, or using a computer while watching TV.

Twentysomethings, too, while often feeling the burdens of career earlier than their parents did, are also more likely to put off the responsibilities of adulthood in favor of enjoying more leisure time. According to Lawrence Bradford, Ph.D. and author of Twentysomething—Managing and Motivating Today's New Work Force, many Americans born between 1965 and 1975 are waiting longer to marry, living longer at home, and postponing careers in favor of traveling and enjoying more personal time.

Then there are the seniors. 

While some statistics show that Americans are working later into life (one 2000 study revealed that 12.8% of people over age 65 are still clocking in), there's also evidence that retired people are also living longer and, thus, enjoying more leisure time. Move over, Jack Kerouac: According to the Travel Industry Association of America, older Americans (age 55 and up) spend more time on the road than any other age group. Seniors hit the road 179 million times in 1999 for an average of 4.9 nights away from home.

According to the Use of Time Project, Americans over age 50 have been the biggest gainers of free time in recent years.

Of course, none of this data provides easy answers for a restaurateur. For every time-starved young mother who wants a quick and nutritious take-home meal, there's another woman the same age who's an unmarried attorney ready to drop $100 for a posh dinner on a white tablecloth.

But as these numbers demonstrate, while shrinking leisure time might be an overall trend in this country, it's neither absolute nor uniform.

So the next time you evaluate who your core customer is, remember that while he or she might well be rushing more, the person next on line may have a lot more time to spend—with you.

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