The perplexing beast known as the U.S. consumer was subjected Wednesday to its annual examination by the restaurant industry, led by the diagnostic team of Chicago researcher Technomic. The 100 or so chain executives attending Technomic’s 2015 Consumer Insights and Planning Program learned how the species is evolving under such influences as a tepid economy and rapid-fire technical advances. And then there were the revelations that had pens scratching across notepads in a frenzy, including these:
1. The very young consumers classified as Gen Z are “far more likely than their older counterparts to cite the importance of human interaction” with restaurant staffers, said Sara Monnette, senior director of consumer insights and innovation for Technomic. Her remark all but quashed the conventional wisdom that love of in-restaurant technology correlates directly with the youngness of consumers.
2. Enter the sport saver. More than half of consumers surveyed by Technomic say they hunt for bargains because the savings make them feel better about indulging themselves with a restaurant visit. But others merely relish the quest itself. “We’re seeing this more in younger consumers, but some consumer feel a thrill in getting a deal,” remarked Kelly Weikel, the researcher’s director of consumer insights.
3. Much was said during the conference about the importance of experience and environment to today’s consumer, but patrons aren’t the only ones evaluating a restaurant’s environment. The turnover of hourly workers at Papa Murphy’s, the take-and-bake pizza chain, has dipped below 100 percent in part because the environment is less stressful, said SVP of Marketing Jayson Tipp. The shops assemble pizzas but don’t actually cook, so “we don’t have any fryers, we don’t have any ovens and we don’t have a lot of noise in our restaurants,” he said. “We don’t stay open after 9 p.m. You have a very different environment.”
4. Chick-fil-A appreciates the benefits of de-stressing restaurants, in this case with technology that eases pressure on customers. “Our restaurants are usually busy, and that can add to the stress,” explained Senior Business Consultant Ari Zachas. With the concept’s new remote-ordering app, he said patrons are spared the on-the-spot pressure of scanning the menu board and deciding what to order. They can use the app to do that at their leisure before they enter the store, Zachas added.
5. Similarly, technology is averting potential customer frustration at Seasons 52, said president Brian Foye. “Once guests teach you, they don’t want to teach you again,” he explained. After they provide precise instructions about how they want an item or a meal, “we try to capture that information in our CRM so they don’t have to tell you again.”
6. Times have changed for Seasons 52, with customers definitely economizing, said Foye. In the past, “one in six customers would order an appetizer,” he noted. “Now it’s one in four.”
7. Subway’s sales are softening, according to Technomic EVP Darren Tristano. “Everything we’ve heard from the industry is that their sales have been down this year,” he said. Tristano suggested that years of touting the chain’s standing deal of a $5 foot-long sandwich have limited the brand’s pricing options. Meanwhile, Jersey Mike’s Subs, Firehouse Subs and other regional players promising better quality for a slightly higher price are posing strong competition.
8. Families with children spend more per-person on dining out than childless married couples, Technomic revealed. Weikel explained that couples today are waiting longer to have children, which provides time to build the family’s earning power. When kids do arrive, the mother in particular is taking home more than her sisters of earlier generations, so the family has more disposable income, even with more mouths to feed.
9. The quick-service market has been underperforming the full-service segment in sales growth, Technomic noted. But the aggregate numbers don’t tell the full story, said Senior Director Donna Hood Crecca. “If you took McDonald’s out of that quick service segment, same store sales would be up about 3.6 percent” for 2014, slightly above the 3.5 percent Technomic clocked for full-service restaurants. With the 500-pound gorilla included, quick-service market is only showing 2.5 percent growth.