It’s been said that the easiest way to a mother’s wallet is through her child’s mouth. Like most nuggets of wisdom, this one’s only partially true. American mothers, all 82.5 million of them, are—surprise!—quite often swayed by the whims and desires of their children. But when it comes to buying food, moms base their decisions on what’s important to themselves as much as to their kids. And how they choose to dole out the family dough can mean plenty to anybody who owns a restaurant.
And how they choose to dole out the family dough can mean plenty to anybody who owns a restaurant. Families with children account for $3 trillion a year in household spending, and mothers (of whom there are 4 million new ones in the United States each year) are in charge of the bulk of those buying decisions. Moms control as much as 75 percent of a family’s finances, according to the 2005 Chain Restaurant Industry Review, released by Scottsdale-based GE Franchise Finance Corporation. That means mothers, not their Happy Meal-hoarding kids, are your real target market.
“When dining out with their kids, moms are leading the charge,” says Marcia Mogelonsky, senior research analyst for Mintel International, a market researcher in Chicago. “And eating out is a decision they’re actively making.”
From single moms to two-parent households, 30 percent of restaurant traffic in the United States is driven by families with kids, says Kimberly Savilonis, vice president of market development for GE Franchise Finance. Much of that traffic is led by mothers who are looking for fast, healthy and inexpensive meals on the go.
“Anything a restaurant can do to make getting food easy to order and buy” is key, says Bob Sandelman, CEO of Sandelman & Associates, a foodservice researcher in San Clemente, California.
Statistics from a Sandelman survey conducted last year showed that nearly 70 percent of women pull through a drive-thru or order carry out rather than walking into a restaurant to sit down and order a meal. In fact, fewer than 26 percent of women surveyed said they were likely to sit and eat on the premises.
And women far outweigh men in drive-thru usage. Only 40 percent of men opt for a drive-thru, according to the study.
In Mintel’s research, 59 percent of women said they enjoy cooking and only 20 percent said they rarely skip meals at home with their families. That may mean that many families still opt for home-cooked meals in order to build family bonds and save money when soaring gas prices and increased living costs put the pinch on family budgets.
Still, women who have children are often forced to juggle fulltime jobs with coordinating their kids’ schedules—including the times they eat. That frequently means forgoing home-cooked meals for eating on the go. Schlepping kids to soccer games, baseball practice and other activities means women are looking for fast and convenient eating options.
And with so much time spent eating on the go, it’s no surprise moms are also conscious of the containers the food is in.
Moms want food packaging that’s “easy to transport, that keeps food hot and fresh and, if eating in the car, packaging that makes it easy to eat on the go,” Sandelman says.
Oftentimes such constraints dictate pulling into a fast food or fast casual restaurant. GE’s survey shows that while the average American spends $2,211 a year on food away from home, parents spend 39 percent more outside the home, averaging $3,077. In fact, Savilonis says, “38 percent of women say that purchasing takeout food is essential.” Getting moms to keep spending those dollars at the same restaurant can be tricky. Time-crunched mothers, especially those with young children, want to know that the restaurant they choose will offer good, healthy food fast. They tend to be loyal to restaurants that have a varied, but not exotic menu with items that can please many different palates—i.e. both theirs and their children’s.
“Most kids don’t have a sophisticated palate,” Mogelonsky says. And moms know it. Rather than take a chance, they want safe restaurants they can rely on that will deliver a menu that tastes exactly the same day in and day out. “Kids want mac and cheese, pizzas, hamburgers,” she adds.
Once they’re hooked, mothers tend to be loyal customers—as do their children.
With so many different types of moms—varying by ethnicity, income, lifestyle and other factors—should restaurants create a market message for each subgroup of mothers?
Experts say no. “With regard to any demographic there are always nuances and individual tastes,” says Savilonis. “But as far as mothers go, they’re always mothers. They take care of their families and that’s the biggest” marketing message they want to hear. They want their children to be healthy, well educated and well fed.
Sandelman applauds Kentucky Fried Chicken and California Pizza Kitchen for trying to balance kids meal toys and activities with the desires of their mothers by offering more educational games and activities.
And because moms are more likely to choose a restaurant on the fly—while driving along the road, say—than search for one in the phone book or online, restaurants are well served by marketing to them through onsite signage that touts healthy menu items or pricing advantages.
Moreover, restaurants will attract more moms if their marketing efforts reflect the daily concerns mothers face. If a series of stories in the media stress how wheat products are key to a healthy diet, for example, you can expect mothers to seek out such food items. Make them pay through the nose at the gas pump and they’ll look for low-cost menus to compensate for the high cost of fuel.
The cause and effect of daily life on mothers’ budgets and nutrition needs is a crucial element to a restaurant’s marketing campaign. “The restaurants that follow the changing environment” and thus the changing whims of mothers, says Savilonis, “are the ones that are the most successful.”