Last year, restaurants faced significant challenges in attracting consumer visits, and 2017 isn’t looking much different, according to The NPD Group, which forecasts little to no traffic growth this year.
But NPD says there are still opportunities for restaurant operators to capture customers.
“It’s becoming more and more competitive,” said NPD analyst Bonnie Riggs. “[Operators] have to give consumers a compelling reason to visit.”
Here are four methods Riggs said operators will likely use to entice consumers to visit — and potentially change the forecasted traffic future — as well as insights from forward-thinking brands.
1. Increase innovation. The world is changing — fast — and consumers expect restaurants to keep up, to provide innovation and to be relevant not only on the menu, but in the overall restaurant experience. Operators that fail to innovate risk being overlooked by a significant portion of consumers, according to NPD’s 2017 Outlook.
“Nothing has been appealing enough to overcome the price issue and the at-home issue,” Riggs said of higher restaurant menu prices as compared with grocery prices. “We’re really going to have to step out of the box — be innovative — if we want to get customers back into restaurants.”
Arby’s, which posted record-setting sales growth and a significant traffic increase in 2015, is among major chains hyper-focused on innovation. From menu developments such as sous vide pork belly, to time-saving operational advances such as cook-and-hold ovens, to a forthcoming mobile ordering app, Arby’s has been hitting on all the innovation cylinders.
“It’s important to a brand that’s trying to transform itself to try and out-innovate everybody else,” said Arby’s CEO Paul Brown. “For true innovation to happen, it needs to be happening at all levels of the organization.”
2. Offer delivery. Consumers’ growing interest in delivery will provide restaurant operators with another vehicle to drive traffic.
“This is an opportunity for full-service operators to drive traffic, especially independents,” Riggs said.
The question for many operators won’t be whether or not to deliver, but which solution is best for their brand: outsourcing delivery to a third-party, on-demand service, or tackling it themselves. No matter which direction operators take, if the cost is too high, consumers won’t bite, Riggs said, citing a recent NPD report that reveals consumers prefer to pay a flat rate of no more than $5 for delivery.
To improve declining traffic trends, Red Robin Burgers and Brews is planning to expand delivery, take-out and catering, in 2017.
“Off-premise is our No. 1 priority, and we have committed dedicated resources throughout our organization to bring this opportunity to life effectively and efficiently,” Red Robin CEO Denny Post told NRN in November. “Today’s guest is defining convenience as the option to choose whether to enjoy food at the restaurant, carry it out, or have that same food delivered to consume at home or over a meeting table at the office. Today’s successful restaurant is both a preferred destination and a convenient source.”
3. Let consumers have it their way. As the marketplace continues to be highly competitive, NPD expects more operators to offer not only the foods customers crave, but also the option for customization. While fast-casual and casual-dining chains have already begun to develop customization, it’s starting to show up at traditional quick-serve chains as well, NPD found.
“Fast food — traditional, especially — they’re big, rules are set,” Riggs said. “They’re not very accommodating, and they’re going to have to be.”
One way Riggs says operators will accommodate consumers’ have-it-my-way demand is by offering digital menus and touchscreen technology.
Many major quick-service chains are adding or are planning to add touchscreen ordering kiosks, including Panera Bread, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and others. But Eatsa, a San Francisco-based newcomer with five units, is eliminating lines and human error with a fully automated ordering model that allows diners to order customized bowls using iPad kiosks or a mobile phone.
“The goal is to tap into the desire not only for speed and technology, but also as a healthful option that’s driven by what customers want,” Eatsa co-founder Scott Drummond told the Washington Post in November.
4. Reward lighter users. To drive traffic amid a stagnant market, operators are likely to develop or expand reward and loyalty programs to entice all kinds of users — not just the heaviest users. This includes lighter users who have historically been neglected due to the higher cost of attracting and retaining them, NPD found.
“Right now, there are a lot of things out there that aren’t compelling,” Riggs said.
Additionally, operators will likely move away from offering set rewards and instead offer targeted rewards aimed at what specific consumers actually want.
Great River, N.Y.-based Lessing’s is a full-service, multi-unit operator that has successfully targeted both light and heavy users with personalized rewards.
“[Customers] want to feel special,” said Jen Cantin, Lessing’s director of marketing. “We’ve seen and heard from our customers, and they’re loving it.”