Black Box: Cold February puts industry’s turnaround on ice

Traffic plummeted as a cold and snowy winter hit much of the country.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Same-store sales fell 0.61% in February while traffic plunged 3.7% as winter weather put a cold end to the industry’s growing sales momentum, according to the latest Black Box Intelligence index.

The traffic number was especially troublesome. The Black Box index hadn’t recorded a customer number that low since August and September 2017—months that, perhaps not coincidentally, were also influenced by weather.

In that case it was a pair of hurricanes that hit populous states Florida and Texas.

Victor Fernandez, vice president of insights and knowledge for Black Box parent company TDn2K, said in a statement that February had the worst sales results in both 2017 and 2018, meaning this year simply continued the trend.

He noted that February sales have declined a cumulative 5.2% over the past three years.

Bad weather seems to be the catalyst that amplifies the challenges faced by chain restaurants,” Fernandez said. “There are too many restaurant locations and too many players competing in the food-away-from-home category.”

The worsening traffic results came as the key industry metric had been improving since October, holding out hope that the industry could finally get more customers into its doors after three years of declines.

That said, winter is a temporary event even if it seems like it will last forever. And figures from the cold months tend to be a poor indicator of overall industry performance as a result. Weather has a clear impact on restaurant sales as snow and cold or heavy rain and wind can keep people home.

And February weather was bad everywhere, with snow out west and in the Midwest. The widespread nature of the weather problems likely influenced sales further.

Only three regions saw positive same-store sales growth in the month: California, the Southeast and the Southwest. The Midwest had the worst results.

And Black Box noted that same-store sales were “slightly positive” the first three weeks of the month before an “abysmal” fourth week pulled sales into negative territory.

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