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Poll: Customers still sitting on their wallets

Poll: Customers still sitting on their wallets

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Higher payroll taxes, stagnant wages, the no-growth economy: No wonder full-service operators have to look deep into the results of a new Harris Poll about restaurant usage to find positive news. The data shows that so far this year, customers are still cutting back, especially when it comes to fine dining. But at least year-over-year numbers show the rate of decline is leveling off.

There’s still plenty of business to be had in certain market segments. The Harris Poll’s mid-February online survey of 2,496 adults found that 54 percent of U.S. adults had visited a local casual dining restaurant in the past month, while 52 percent had eaten as a casual dining chain restaurant. In contrast, just 18 percent had patronized a local fine dining restaurant and only nine percent had eaten a meal at a fine dining restaurant chain.

Outback Steakhouse offers value-seekers a four-course meal for $15. Photo: Outback/Newscom

Add in those who had eaten at a fast food chain (64 percent) and Harris says that only 10 percent of Americans did not eat at a restaurant in the past month.  

But customers are still going to restaurants less frequently than they used to. When asked whether they had eaten out more or less frequently over the past six months, many more respondents reported “less frequently” than “more frequently,” no matter the segment.

Some types of restaurants did much better on this metric than others. It was almost a wash for local casual dining restaurants (20 percent “less,” 14 percent “more”), while casual dining restaurant chains (24 percent “less,” 11 percent “more”) did OK. But local fine dining restaurants (21 percent “less,” seven percent “more”) and fine dining chains (23 percent “less,” four percent “more”) still appear to be leaking customers.

Some good news: “less frequently” responses for all dining segments have declined significantly on a year-over-year basis.

The survey results also provide a quick snapshot of what customers say they’re looking for from restaurants these days. Here’s what the Harris Poll found:

“There are multiple factors driving Americans’ choices between the restaurants available to them, with those most frequently identified as important including good prices (90 percent); the mood they are in (for either type of cuisine or type of food (86 percent); having a specific menu item they enjoy (84 percent); a convenient location (83 percent) and a broad variety of menu items (78 percent). The majority also consider special offers (59 percent) and healthy menu items that fit a dietary need (56 percent) to be important.”

If you were hoping for news of a restaurant industry rebound, you won’t find it in the results of this poll. But at least it appears that the decline is over and that positive momentum, while barely perceptible, has begun to gather, particularly for independent casual restaurants. Let’s hope that the next time market research firm Harris Interactive fields this poll, the results suggest a brighter picture than the current one does.

TAGS: Marketing
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