• Dinner daypart traffic down across restaurant segments

A promising start to 2012 for U.S. restaurant traffic was followed by slow spring and summer quarters. The result is a lackluster, yet stable industry, according to The NPD Group.

The summer (July, August and September) of 2012 ended on a weaker note than it started with visits flat compared to same period last year, according to NPD's foodservice market research. Visits were up 2 percent in August and then declined in September. NPD forecasts that the restaurant industry will end 2012 with visits flat. However, spending is anticipated to be up 2 percent.

When consumers did visit restaurants during the summer, they chose limited-service restaurants. As a result, this segment experienced traffic gains of 1 percent. The coffee/donut/bagel, fast casual, retail and Mexican concepts fared especially well during the summer.

However, visits to QSR hamburger concepts, which had been an industry driver in recent quarters, were flat compared to the same quarter in 2011.

Full-service restaurants continued to struggle during the summer. Visits to midscale/family dining restaurants declined by 2 percent and the casual dining segments experienced visit declines of 3 percent. A recent NPD report, "A Look at Influencers of Restaurant Visits," which identifies the chief drivers contributing to decline or growth at key meal occasions, finds that among the factors contributing to visit declines at casual dining dinner — a key daypart for the segment — are the price disparity between a casual dining and QSR eater check, unemployment, and cutbacks on the part of young adults.

No restaurant segment realized growth at the dinner daypart in the summer quarter, according to NPD. The visit gains at breakfast, lunch and PM snacks were exclusive to QSR consumers, which is another reason for the weakness at full-service restaurants in the summer. Consumers appear to be willing to commit spending more at less expensive dayparts, while being more frugal at dinner.

"While the restaurant industry basically recovered from last year's traffic declines, a sluggish economy and continuing cost consciousness on the part of consumers kept the industry stable but not growing," said Bonnie Riggs, NPD's restaurant industry analyst. "The current economic environment and consumer mindset may be longer-term than we first thought and the industry will need to adjust accordingly. There are still growth opportunities in the industry; it's a matter of identifying the opportunities and, as always, meeting consumers' needs and wants."

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