Happy hours make a comeback—in an often unrecognizable form

The updated discounting windows are more likely to come during the day or at night, and the drinks are as likely to be nonalcoholic as full strength.

Restaurant are resurrecting the old marketing chestnut of a happy hour in their struggle to win back customers, but don’t expect the same old two-for-one after-work specials.

The new version is just as likely to involve nonalcoholic drinks as the more potent stuff, and the deal fests are more likely to fall during afternoons or TV prime time than right after the business day ends. Darden Restaurants’ new The Capital Burger concept, for instance, has a happy hour every day from 3-6:30 p.m, when the price of cocktails and wines by the glass drops to $7. Chili’s holds two a day, from 3-7 p.m. and then from 9 p.m. until closing—plus from opening to closing on Sundays.

Nor is the venerable marketing draw making its comeback exclusively in the usual turf of casual dining, though players in that arena are resurrecting the customer lure as well. Happy hour proponents include such quick-service specialists as Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks, which is planning to unveil a new version Thursday to replace last summer's popular afternoon Frappuccino Happy Hour.

Sonic was a pioneer in using a seasonal nonalcoholic happy hour to bolster traffic after the dinner rush. This year, it’s dusting off the annual promotion now rather than waiting for summertime. Patrons can now get half-priced floats, shakes and slushes from 8 p.m. until closing.

Dunkin’s focus is on the afternoon. In what the chain is promoting as a happy hour, medium-sized lattes are available for $2 each during the slump time between lunch and dinner.

Starbucks hasn’t yet revealed the specifics of its new afternoon deal. The come-on will be structured to deliver incremental sales as much as traffic, CFO Scott Maw suggested in addressing investors earlier this month.

He explained that the chain’s long-running Frappuccino Happy Hour had lured customers into a unit who would then stop back at other times to buy a Frappuccino at the full price, making the deal worthwhile. But the happy hour discount had maxed out in converting customers, meaning the promotion wasn’t delivering new patrons.

“What we are trying to do this year is sort of reinvent happy hour,” said Maw.

The reinvention of happy hours is part of the larger ongoing trend of discounting the price of beverages, a product with considerable margin wiggle room, as a guest enticement. Recently, Applebee’s discounted the price of vodka-spiked lemonade to $2 a glass for March and cut the price of Bahama Mamas, a signature of the chain, to $1 during February.

Chili’s cut the price of its margaritas to $3.13 on its anniversary, March 13, and most recently included a free soft drink as one of the every-visit perks available to members of its loyalty program.

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