The most recent numbers from Black Box Intelligence reflect what has been an ongoing trend for the last several months—improving same store sales. Sounds like great news, right? It could be, if another key metric wasn’t trending in the wrong direction.
Traffic numbers in restaurants are on a very steady down slope. In the third quarter, traffic was down 1.3%, and in October, traffic slowed down by another 2.2%.
The bottom line: Fewer people are dining out, but they’re spending more money.
Earlier this year, a survey of 500+ consumers asked them several questions about their preferences and experiences when dining out, as well as how they are making their decisions. The results could help restaurant operators adjust their customer experience to help bring more traffic through the door.
Despite Low Traffic Numbers, Americans Still Dine Out Frequently
Consumers have a lot of choice when purchasing a prepared meal these days: Restaurants or prepared foods from a grocery store? Dine in or take out? Fast food, fast casual, or full-service dining? The list goes on and on.
Sixty percent of the above-mentioned survey takers had dined at a restaurant, whether sit-in or delivery, once a week or more frequently. Another 25% reported doing the same two to three times a month.
But there is stiff competition.
Nearly 70% of the same group has purchased prepared foods (pre-made sushi, fried chicken, sandwiches, etc.) at a grocery or convenience store in the last month, indicating that the convenience of prepared foods is taking root in American life. This is an increase from a similar survey conducted in 2016, when slightly more than 65% of respondents said they had purchased a prepared meal from these sources.
What Are Customers Really Looking for in a Restaurant?
It should come as no surprise, that the driving factor for choosing a restaurant is the quality of the food. Respondents of this survey were provided a list of 10 areas of food safety and operational items to choose from and asked them to choose up to five that matter to them most when choosing a restaurant. Food quality and taste was the frontrunner by far, but restaurant cleanliness was second.
The third item on the list might surprise people. It wasn’t speed of service, or order accuracy, or service quality—while they all do matter to customers, it’s their previous experience with a location or chain that matters most.
When Customers Want Answers about a Restaurant, They Go Online
Social media and online reviews are playing an increasingly important role in how customers share their experiences with restaurants. The news about social media and online review sites is good for restaurants. If you’re doing a good job with your customer experience, your customers are willing to talk about it.
Respondents were extremely likely to use social media to share a restaurant experience on a social media platform such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram: 58%, said they would be very or somewhat likely to share a restaurant experience on social media. Even better news? Among those who fell into these two categories, nearly two-thirds say they are more likely to share a positive experience than a negative one.
The same holds true for online restaurant review sites, such as Yelp! And OpenTable. While fewer customers say they are very or somewhat likely to share their experience on an online restaurant review site, 49% of those who use review sites once again say that a positive experience is more likely to garner a review than a negative one. A full 66% of those who would be likely to use an online review site are likely to post a positive experience over a negative one.
Especially in the case of online restaurant review sites, this is important. Why? Because nearly three-quarters of respondents sometimes or often use restaurant review sites to help select where they will dine. Among those respondents, the online review carries significant weight in making their decision. Nearly 25% say online reviews are extremely or very influential in their dining decisions, while another 41% qualified them as moderately influential.
Delivery Problems and Who Customers Blame
Most restaurant operators know that there are big dollars to be had in the delivery space. But, the results of this survey indicate that restaurants have a bit of work to do.
Well over half (58.9%) of those surveyed had ordered food for delivery in the six months before the survey. Of those, nearly 30% experienced a problem with their order: Food being cold, wrong food, took too long to deliver the food, etc.
Here’s the important takeaway for restaurants offering delivery: Whether you manage delivery yourself or use a third-party delivery service, customers that experience problems place the fault squarely on the restaurant. Among those that experienced a delivery problem, 79.55% say the restaurant was to blame. That’s important because with third-party delivery service, the restaurant does lose some control over time it takes to deliver, food security, and more.
Foodborne Illness Outbreaks Have a Long-term Effect on Revenue
A 2018 study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health put a price tag on foodborne illness outbreaks for restaurants: Anywhere from $4,000 up to $1.9 million wrapped up in “lost revenue, fines, lawsuits, legal fees, insurance premium increases, inspection costs and staff retraining.”
The survey results discussed in this article show that the effects of a foodborne illness outbreak could linger for much longer than anyone truly realizes.
Nearly 30% of respondents said they would never eat at that location if they knew a foodborne illness outbreak had happened there; 24% said they would stay away for between one to six months, and another 18% said they would stay away for six months to a year.
The responses get more dramatic when chain restaurants have foodborne illness incidents. When asked if they would avoid eating at other locations in the chain if a single location was involved in an outbreak, more than 31% said yes, and a whopping 50% say maybe. The majority of respondents would give the chain a second shot, however. Only 19% say they’d never eat at any location in the chain again; more than half (over 58%) report that they would only stay away for between one month and one year.
If multiple locations of a chain are involved, the percentage of respondents that would avoid eating at other locations in the chain more than doubled to more than 68%. The bulk of those who would stop eating at other locations in the chain (31%) say they’d never eat at the chain again, while another 18.5% would avoid the chain for longer than a year. Another 23% say they’d stay away for six months to one year.
Customer Experience Investments Can Reap Big Rewards
This survey revealed plenty of other details about what customers are looking for—what cleanliness factors drive them crazy, what they think of health department scores (and which groups are really paying attention), what really turns them off when they read it in a review—but the real takeaway is this: Restaurants willing to invest in customer experience and a culture of food safety will reap the rewards from customers.