Convene a multi-day exploration of how restaurant customers’ behavior is changing and you’ll likely catch more than a few chain execs looking anxious because their menu and marketing assumptions were just upended. So it was at Technomic’s annual conference this week on the consumer, where the presentations and off-stage discussions kept circling back to how the struggle to build traffic is fundamentally changing.
1. Loyalty program clutter
After the widespread introduction of more sophisticated restaurant apps last year, the expectation is that brands will try to wield those connections for 2.0 versions of loyalty programs. Technomic’s Erik Thoresen cited customer affinity as the industry’s big opportunity.
Good luck exploiting it, suggested one speaker at Technomic’s 200-person groupthink. Members of the average household currently participate in 30 frequent-customer programs, noted Sean Copeland of Colloquy, an information company that specializes in patron loyalty.
Restaurant chains have to ask themselves, “what am I offering that’s different,” Copeland advised.
2. What do chefs know?
Forty-one percent of consumers think they have a better read on what tastes good than chefs do, Technomic revealed at the event. That nugget suggests the customer is not going to hesitate in challenging restaurants’ decisions about what to offer or how to prepare it. They won’t hesitate to yelp that even a celebrity chef, a veritable god of flavor, isn’t wearing clothes.
3. The sleeper threat to all-day breakfast
Offering a slate of a.m. products for lunch, dinner and snacks has been a positive move for restaurants, and hopefully c-stores won’t notice. “C-stores could benefit from all-day breakfast if they could figure out how to do it,” observed Darren Tristano, Technomic’s president.
4. The new quality play: grocery stores
Consumers’ ratings of the meals offered by retail food sources like Whole Foods now match the quality evaluations of polished-casual chains like The Cheesecake Factory and Seasons 52, according to data shared during the event.
5. The Force could be against restaurants
Not all of that stepped-up competition is coming from other food sources, noted Tristano. Where, he asked, did consumers get all the money they’re spending on the new Star Wars movie? Might the record-setting gate have been spent otherwise on restaurant meals?
6. Minds are made up early
Changing a guest's decision-making process is hardly a breeze, according to Technomic data. Almost half of consumers (42 percent) have a preferred restaurant in mind, regardless of the dining-out occasion, the research shows. And three-fourths of customers know what they’re going to order before they even enter the restaurant.
Still, noted Technomic’s Rich Shank, 68 percent of restaurant visits are “haphazard,” or have an element of chance introduced. It could be something as mundane as having to pull off the highway for a child’s “bathroom emergency,” then deciding to eat before continuing on the trip. The parent in that situation will likely choose a place that’s already been mentally tagged as an acceptable choice, Shank explained. The challenge for today’s marketer is getting a brand into that set of possibilities.
7. The trust factor
Consumers aren’t exactly brimming with trust in the restaurant business, Technomic noted. Only 24 percent say they have confidence in the food and beverage business.
If a comfortable level can be cultivated through transparency, that trusted brand is going to reap significant business benefits, according to Technomic’s Donna Hood Crecca. Sixty-eight percent of consumers say they’d prefer a restaurant that’s completely forthcoming about its ingredients, and 25 percent said they’d pay more for that transparency.