A new study released by AlixPartners, the global business-advisory firm, posits that the turbulence in the chain-restaurant industry of late — from underperforming results to an uptick in bankruptcies to renewed shareholder pressures — might not be just a blip but rather a sign of structural changes besetting the industry, and that the industry right now faces a defining moment.
The study, which includes an in-depth survey of more than 1,000 U.S. consumers, examines a wide array of challenges and opportunities that, if properly addressed, might allow industry players to stay ahead of the big changes fundamentally altering the industry. The areas of the challenge and opportunity include technology, delivery, labor costs and growth.
The study found that 57% of consumers polled plan to dine out the same number of times in the next 12 months as in the previous 12, the same percentage who said that in a similar AlixPartners survey of a year ago. In addition, the average spending per meal reported by consumers in the survey for the past 12 months, $15.38, was the highest in AlixPartners’ nine-year history of conducting such surveys and, moreover, those surveyed said that over the next 12 months they plan to spend even a bit more, $15.43 per meal.
However, this year’s survey also uncovered big anticipated cutbacks, including among higher-frequency diners, the kind most coveted by the industry. For example, diners who patronized fast-food and fast-casual establishments at least twice weekly intend to cut back their visits by 8% and 13%, respectively, over the next 12 months, according to the survey. At a more granular level, those polled said they plan to cut back their fast-food meals to 4.11 per year, down from 4.37 reported for the prior 12 month; their fast-casual meals to 2.93, versus 3.01; their convenience-store meals to 3.65, versus 3.71 and their ready-to-eat meals from grocery stores to 2.98, versus 3.16.
Meanwhile, among those who said they plan to dine out less in the coming 12 months, the most-cited reason, chosen by 50% as one of their choices (of 16 available), was “saving money.” (That compares with 44% who cited “want to eat healthier” as one of their reasons to cut back on dining out.) And among those planning to dine out less in order to save money, the most-cited use for that saved money was “travel experiences,” picked as a reason by 32% of respondents. In addition, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the type of non-restaurant establishment chosen by consumers in the survey as most in need of dining upgrades was hotels, picked as a choice by 24%.
The survey also found big differences between what Millennials and Baby Boomers plan to do with the money they save by dining out less often. While the largest percentage of Baby Boomers, 47%, said they intend to put that money toward their retirement, that largest percentage of Millennials, 46%, cited “personal services,” which was defined to include things like hair and nail services, dry cleaning and housekeeping. In addition, 26% of Millennials cited “education” as the intended use for that money, which, says the study, could well be taken to include the burden of paying off already-incurred student loans.
Adam Werner, managing director at AlixPartners and co-head of the firm’s restaurant, hospitality and leisure practice, said, “While lower fuel prices have helped operators by putting more money in consumers’ pockets, that’s become a two-edged sword as cheap gas and the lowest air fares we’ve seen since the recession seem to be enticing consumers to allocate at least some of their restaurant spending on travel and other experiences. Meanwhile, the all-important Millennial consumer, enabled the most by social media and other technologies that allow them to stay in close touch with friends even when they’re traveling, is the cohort most fundamentally shifting spending to experiences. Clearly, the challenge for the industry is to reinvent the ‘restaurant experience’ in order to compete with all the other experiences out there today.”