People watch wallets when eating out

Annual Harris study shows price, food mood, and favorite menu items drive restaurant choice—as trip declines appear to slow in 2013.

Restaurants aren’t out of the woods yet.  Traffic appears to be down, ‘good prices’ are the top reason (90%) people choose a restaurant, and ‘special offers’ matter to nearly two-thirds of Gen Xers (age 36-47) and Boomers (48-66) and more than half of Echo Boomers/Millennials (18-35) and Matures (67+). 

The latest Harris Interactive study of 2,496 U.S. adults shows that 90% have eaten out in the past month—but they aren’t free spenders, and some of these trips simply happen because a person is famished and needs food from a nearby place.  

A deeper look at restaurant-going reveals higher trip frequency to lower-priced establishments:  Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults (64%) ate at a fast feeder during the past month, 54% went to a casual local eatery, 52% went to a casual dining chain, 18% had local fine dining, and 9% ate at a fine dining chain.  In all, 90% went to one of these places, and just 10% didn’t during the month that preceded the Feb. 13-18, 2013 online survey period.

Visit patterns indicate suburbanites (57%) are the likeliest audience for casual dining chains, and rural populations are the least likely to experience fine dining.  

Adults with children under 18 at home are most likely to eat fast food (73% vs. 61% without kids)—and most likely to eat at a fine dining chain (13% vs. 7%), the study data showed.

Eating out less continues to be a savings strategy.  Many more people say they eat out “less frequently” at every kind of restaurant now than six months ago.  For instance, with fast food, 26% say they eat it “less frequently” vs. 14% who say “more frequently.  The casual local eatery draws a 20% “less” and 14% “more” response. The casual dining chain elicits a 24% “less” and 11% “more” answer.  More dramatic differences turn up with local fine dining’s 21% “less” and 7% “more” response and fine dining chain’s 23% “less” and 4% “more” answer.

A taste of good news in this data—the “less frequently” mentions in 2013 have fallen since last year with regard to every restaurant type.  So traffic may be slowing at a slower rate.  For instance, fast food drew 36% “less frequently” responses in 2012 and that ebbed to 26% in 2013.  Other classes showed similarly proportionate dips.

The top few reasons for picking a restaurant are: good prices (90%), the mood people are in (86% overall, but 93% for Gen Xers), a favorite item on the menu (84%), convenient location (83%), a wide choice of menu items (78%), special offers (59%) and healthy menu items that fit a dietary need (56%), the study states. 

Favored cuisines are American food (31%), Italian (23%) Mexican (16%) and Chinese (14%).

As long as cost is high on the influence list, F3 believes supermarkets should emphasize their prepared foods’ value—quality at fair prices—and that shoppers need not tip for takeout they pick up.  Supermarkets could also win over health-driven shoppers by preparing foods in a healthy way (less salt, perhaps) and messaging that difference in stores, circulars and online.