Capturing today's diners? A lot of it is still about 'the money'
A lot of money, time and expertise go into uncovering customer desires, including a poll from AlixPartners, which found that in many ways money still rules. Today's diners want it all, but they want it all as cheap as they can possibly get it.
Echoing previous studiesthat found a consumer shift toward eating at home to save cash, the AlixPartners poll indicated that diners today are well aware of the price gap between restaurant meals and those prepared from groceries or even ready-to-eat items from convenience stores.
In fact, when it comes to the folks who opt for those ready-to-eat items for a meal, the survey found more than half (56 percent) said they do it because it's cheaper. The convenience of these meals, though important, was far behind in its level of importance, with just 22 percent of those polled saying this was the main reason they opted for ready-to-eat over restaurant meals.
AlixPartners Managing Director Kurt Schnaubelt said restaurateurs should be picking up some clear signals about their paths forward with today's dining public. As shown in the results reported here Thursday, it's clear that customers want home delivery options, but they also show a good amount of reticence to accept delivery from third-party services outside of restaurant ownership.
"All the companies today putting investments into the third-party and other delivery programs might want to step back a bit and look at their operations holistically, with an eye on packaging and available technologies as well as delivery," Schnaubelt said in a release about the study. "The challenge is to thoroughly understand how well your food 'travels,' and to maintain as much control as possible over the entire process.”
Diners: "Pay workers more. Charge me less."
The study also found this year that even more diners supported restaurant operators who pay higher wages than in years' past. For instance, 58 percent of those surveyed agreed with the U.S. movement of increasing worker wages, up from 50 percent from last year's survey. As altruistic as that sounds, 16 percent said they wouldn't pay more, up from 13 percent last year.
The options in a tough market … and yes, there are some
Overall, the study leaves restaurateurs stuck between a rock and a hard place, with the overall industry appearing to be slowing growth-wise — same-store sales for all major foodservice segments were down last year except for QSR — while prices on the menu remained flat even as operators were struggling to pay employees more.
According to leaders at AlixPartners, it's important that operators realize that there are still some areas of opportunity.
For instance, while it's true that casual dining grew only 0.8 percent last year, 34 percent also said they wanted more choices in fast casual options. In the fine dining sector, people with the cash to regularly eat at fine dining restaurants are planning to eat out even more this year.
There are even some signs now that confirm those finding, including the current success of so-called "specialty" fast casual concepts, like Shake Shack, Freshii and Blaze Pizza. Likewise, the poll found that the majority of American consumers (35 percent) chose the gourmet burger segment of the restaurant industry as their favorite option for future growth.
"Clearly, there is still room for indulgences by diners at almost every segment level," Werner said. "The challenge for operators is to zealously find and exploit the opportunities that do exist.”