August, 2010

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Consumers Interested In Dining Out And Eating Healthfully

Most industries and families have seen monumental changes over the past two years as the country adjusted to the impact of the challenged economy. Restaurants experienced the same storm, adjusting to a climate where consumers were in search of more affordable dining-out options or, worse, not eating out at all.

According to consumer survey research conducted by Market Force, a global leader in customer intelligence solutions, these precarious spending trends were at their highest in December, 2009. In that time period, more than half of the survey respondents were fearful of the struggling economy and said they planned to eat out less than they had in prior months.

That picture changed dramatically over the past six months, with Market Force’s research showing a more than 180-degree. When the same question was posed to consumers in June, one in four said they expect to eat out more this summer, and just 8 percent said they would dine out less. Sixty-seven percent expected their eating out patterns to remain the same.

In 2010, there appears to be a shift in food trends from the “hunker down and don’t spend” collective mindset to a public that is a little more relaxed about spending and has a new focus on making food decisions around personal health. The evidence is everywhere:

• Michelle Obama launching her “Let’s Move” initiative to eliminate childhood obesity in America.

• Whole Foods Market, based in Austin, TX, introducing its “Health Starts Here” community outreach programs that educate consumers about healthful eating.

With the growing prevalence of health and wellness educational programs, more and more consumers are discovering the direct link between diet and disease and are factoring it into their food choices.

Market Force’s restaurant study showed that 42 percent of consumers believe it is extremely important for restaurants to provide nutrition and calorie information, and about one-third placed equal importance on portion control. Surprisingly, given expansion of the organic market in recent years, only 13 percent said that a restaurant’s use of organic products was extremely important. This could be attributed to cost-conscious diners wondering if the taste and health benefits are worth the expense. It was more important that restaurants used products that were locally grown, perhaps because post-recession consumers are concerned about rejuvenating their local economy. (See Graph 1)

The Market Force restaurant survey also asked participants to rank their favorite quick service restaurants (QSRs) and casual family restaurants, and then to rate them in the following attributes: Quality of Food, Taste of Food, Speed of Service, Friendly Service, Cleanliness, Atmosphere, Overall Value, Healthy Choices and Green/Sustainable.

The responses revealed that the quality and taste of the food mattered most, even more than the service. Five Guys, in Lorton, VA, was named the favorite restaurant on the QSR front, and it outscored the other contenders in seven out of the 10 attributes. St. Louis, MO-based Panera Bread, known for its healthful meal options, also fared well in the rankings, taking the second spot overall. (Graph 2)

In the casual family dining restaurant category, the Cheesecake Factory, in Calabasas Hills, CA, came out on top with 13 percent of the vote, outscoring the competition in six out of the 10 attributes — including the top score in healthy choices.

The restaurant survey was conducted May - June 2010 among Market Force’s network of 300,000 independent mystery shoppers and merchandisers across the country, dubbed The Force. The pool of 4,600 consumer respondents ranged in age from 18 to 72 and reflected a broad spectrum of income levels, with 60 percent reporting incomes of more than $50,000 a year. Eighty percent work full- or part-time. Seventy-six percent were women — the primary household consumer purchasers. Half of the participants said they have children at home.

Don’t Bet The Farm On Rapid Shifts In Dining Behavior

Watching the ebbs and flows of consumer opinion is always intriguing. The question, for those trying to make a living in the food industry, is what significance to place on these reports? Not too much we would say. After all, if consumer sentiment can shift dramatically and become more positive in six months, it can suddenly become more negative just as easily. So, perhaps the useful lesson we can draw from such rapid shifts is that one would be foolish to place much stock in such ephemeral reports.

It is also important to match consumer claims and actual behavior. That is the advantage of repetitive polling — after a long time one can start to match results with reality. So political pollsters, for example, typically publish reports based on “likely voters” because decades of experience have taught them that many who will answer a pollster’s question won’t bother to vote.

Without lots of historical data tracking the claims of consumers who say they eat out more or less versus their actual behavior over time, such consumer expressions are more curiosities than useful guides to behavior.

Equally, it is important to not confuse the admonitions of politicians, intellectuals and various instruments of persuasion with consumer behavior. So it may be a prod to new behavior when the First Lady launches an initiative, or when physician committees decide to promote a course of behavior, or when upscale lifestyle markets promote a course of behavior — or it may not matter at all. For all we know, people may rebel against the nanny-like quality of all these power sources in society trying to tell the common man what to do.

Although people may, in fact, be “discovering the direct link between diet and disease and are factoring it into their food choices,” one would be hard pressed to look at data on obesity and note any way in which this “factoring” is actually solving any problem.

When consumers claim that they find it “extremely important” to get nutrition and calorie information, one wonders if this isn’t just the consumer thinking that is the “politically correct” position to take. After all, the restaurant industry is highly competitive and very close to the consumer. If getting easy access to such information really motivated consumers to select one restaurant over another, one suspects there would be a lot more nutrition information, far more prominently displayed.

Speculating about what might motivate consumers is fun, but it is important to recognize that it is, just that, speculation. So when consumers ask for local, it might mean they want to support the local economy, but it could also mean that consumers identify in the word “local” a series of attributes that they hope to acquire when they eat local. Produce Business has done many focus groups in this area, and consumers seem to expect local to be A) Less expensive, because it should save on transport, B) Better tasting, because it can be picked riper C) Fresher and crisper, because it just came from the vine, tree, bush or field.

It is always advisable to do qualitative research before undertaking quantitative research. This enables one to find out what consumers mean when they use certain words. Is an Idaho potato any potato grown in Idaho? Or is it any long russet-type potato grown anywhere?

Market share expansion can also be a tricky matter, and one should be careful about attributing changes made on the production side to consumers. So, for example, a lot of retailers have found it useful to offer only organic on smaller volume items. This saves the retailer from having to offer two types of basil, for example. This is a big boost for organic, but tells us little about demand for organic. The whole point of such a switch is that a small group may demand organic, whereas almost everyone will accept organic.

It is interesting to note that the restaurant survey identified Five Guys as the favorite restaurant on the QSR side of things. This may offer a clue as to the way consumers interpret personal health advice. The burger, hot dog and french fry chain may be “healthful” in the sense that the french fries and beef are fresh, never frozen, there are no trans-fats and the fries are cooked in pure peanut oil. So if you are going to eat hamburgers and fries, this is, as quick service restaurants go, high quality. But, healthy? Well, a “regular” burger that has two patties has 800 calories; a large order of fries has 1,500 calories, and we haven’t even considered a Coke, cheese, bacon or any other add-ons!

Besides, considering that there are only about 500 Five Guys units, as opposed to 30,000 McDonalds, it is pretty obvious that being a “favorite” is not the same as being the restaurant one eats at most. For business people, there is a lesson here: Maybe everyone’s favorite toy store is FAO Schwartz, but maybe the same people who say that buy most of their toys at Wal-Mart.