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"When will my customers be back?"

While operators have made significant progress in addressing customer pain points, new data shows consumers' uncertainty is mounting.

Today’s traffic challenges are complex between lingering covid concerns, poor customer experiences, and now inflation with record-high gas prices and soaring menu prices.

Let's start with the good news, as I think we all could use some of that.

Covid seems like a thing of the past to operators, and consumers may be getting catching up. As we begin Q2, consumer sentiment toward returning to normal activities is at an all-time high since we began tracking. Positivity rates are strong and slightly ahead of where we were last summer. Importantly, those that are Anxious/Very Anxious continue to decline with numbers that are close to April of 2020.

  • 69% First Out The Door/Taking it Slow

  • 23% Anxious/Very Anxious.

  • 10% Wait and See

More good news: customer frustration with the lack of staff at restaurants and shorter restaurant hours has declined since the beginning of the year.

  • 45% Not enough staff (-13 pts since Jan '22)

  • 31% Location was closed /shorter hours due to Covid staffing shortages (-18 pt since Jan '22)

Much as these numbers are encouraging, they are still high absolute and are limiting visit frequency.

Over a third of customers have returned to pre-pandemic visit frequency levels, yet we have a long road ahead

In March, 37% of Americans reported that they had fully returned to their pre-pandemic restaurant visit frequency which is up 8pt since January of 2022. Unfortunately, 53% report that they are still going out less often. It's improved significantly since January, yet still is a daunting number.

Rising fuel prices and soaring inflation are taking their toll on the restaurant's recovery. March data shows that 59% of Americans are driving less often and 60% are pulling back on going out as often. Consumers are having to make the tough choices and trades will be made.

Consumers are at a crossroads – the pent-up demand is high to dine-out, yet experience doesn’t justify the price. It's not "worth it". If you have to raise the price, you have to up the experience. It’s just that simple.

Consumers are having to make choices in their everyday activities:

· 36% Dining out less often now because prices have gone up too much

· 28% Dining out less often now because the experience isn’t that good anymore

The question I am asked most often is, "When will my customers be back?"

We have the answer and it's a complicated answer as everything has been during Covid. We asked the "dining out less" consumers when they felt that they would be back to pre-pandemic visit frequency. The data shows that the remaining frequency will trickle in during the balance of 2022 with the most movement happening in Q2.

Among those dining out less, % when they expect to return, the cumulative impact

  • 27% By April

  • 42% By May - Jun

  • 53% By Q3

  • 66% By Q4

What is most unsettling for restaurant operators is the growing uncertainty among remaining consumers. 30% of those dining out less often don't know when they will be back to normal dining frequency, up 6 points since January.

Why does it matter?

We've morphed from a penetration game of getting customers back through our doors to now a frequency game to have them come back more often. The share war for visit frequency is in full swing.

Today's battleground is the employee experience not what's served up on the menu.

The single most important thing an operator can do today is to focus on their employees. Yes, training, but it’s more than that. Operators talk at length about the Guest experience, but I don’t hear the same depth of insight or journey mapping on “employee experience.” Our employees make or break the brand. Ask yourself this question, is your “employee experience worth it” - if the answer is no, how can your Guest experience be "worth it", especially during inflationary times? When you make the employee experience worth it, that's when the differentiated brand magic happens for the Guest.

Survey data was collected the week ending March 21, 2022, by Lisa W. Miller & Associates and Prodege, LLC from a representative sample of 1005 adults 18 years and older.

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