Consumer Trends

What will bring customers back?

New research says customers are relying on government officials to give them the go-ahead to dine out again.
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Now that restaurant dining rooms are reopening, what will get them filled with eager customers again? A flurry of new research reveals what hooks are most effective in pulling back dine-in customers.

The "doh!" answer: It’ll take more than assurances of safety and precaution to turn their heads.

Not that those factors aren’t critical. Nearly three out of four (71%) of respondents are basing their decision to dine out again on assurances from government and local health officials that it’s safe to enjoy a sit-down restaurant experience, according to a survey jointly conducted by Rewards Network, American Airlines and United Airlines. The 1,373 participants are members of the loyalty programs offered by the three parties, a presumably more upscale group than the population as a whole.

But pre-COVID considerations haven’t been tossed, the survey revealed. For instance, 74% of the respondents said they will be as price-sensitive as they were before “social distancing” entered the national vocabulary, and 66% said it’s important that they receive the same sort of frequency rewards that were extended before the crisis. More than a third (37%) said they expect special price enticements to pull them off the couch and back into restaurant dining rooms.

Overall, 60% of the participants said they’d be comfortable with dining out immediately or within a few weeks of restaurants reopening in their areas. And price considerations aside, 69% of the canvassed consumers said they’ll return to their favorite spots for a night out.

But, the data shows, there has to be a comfort level. The strongest assurance of a place’s safety is its adherence to social distancing in their seating plans, the overriding factor for 69% of the participants. A slightly lower proportion (62%) cited a policy of frequently sanitizing of all surfaces.

The study did reveal that a minority of consumers (14%) are reluctant to dine out before a vaccine against COVID-19 has been developed and distributed. Projections of having that defense in hand have varied from later this year to multiple years, and possibly never.

Families with young children also are understandably concerned about safety and sanitation protocols, but there are other factors that play into their dining-out decisions. Late last month, Revenue Management Solutions (RMS), a global research company, followed up its May survey of 1,800 consumers with in-depth interviews with moms and dads in Dallas, Seoul, Berlin and London. While families in different parts of the world may differ in their dining-out behavior, they share similar attitudes about returning to restaurants post-COVID, according to RMS. 

In general, it found parents to be more set on buying restaurant meals for at-home consumption.The research verified that parents of children aged 6 to 12 have continued to use restaurants while sheltering at home, maintaining traditions such as Friday night pizza delivery.  Three out of four (75%) families said they trust restaurants to safely produce and deliver meals, but parents voiced concerns about the safety of eating inside restaurants. The interviews revealed that moms and dads still prefer drive-thru and takeout over dine-in service.

However, the research also found pent-up demand among the parents.  In South Korea, families use restaurants to meet up with relatives and friends and share communal meals. Since that’s not an option right now, they are going out in smaller groups and choosing restaurants depending on how crowded they are, says Christina Norton, director, resource development for RMS.

Moms in the United States view dining out as a learning opportunity, she addsReading the menu, interacting with servers and fielding a warm welcome at a neighborhood spot are seen as educational experiences prized by the parents, according to the research.

In the United Kingdom, families expressed that they are more likely to risk dining out to order dishes they can’t easily make at home, such as Indian curries or Chinese dim sum.

U.S. parents had a similar response. Easier-to-make dishes such as mac and cheese are diminishing in their popularity, according to RMS, with more unique items taking their place. Families prioritize restaurants with a varied menu to give kids more choice.  

The RMS survey found that consumers around the globe are fairly optimistic that the restaurant industry will recover within 12 months. Respondents in the U.S., Taiwan and South Korea have the most positive outlook, believing recovery will occur in 3 to 6 months, while those in the UK and Singapore see 6 to 12 months as a more probable outcome.   

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